A recent Iowa Supreme Court decision found that an employee fired from being irresistible to her boss does not have a wrongful termination claim. This has understandably been the cause of public outrage. In that case, the Court found that a dentist, James Knight, did not violate Iowa’s Civil Rights Act when he fired a dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, who worked for Knight for more than ten years. Knight stated that their relationship had become a detriment to his marriage. In this case, both parties agreed that James Knight and Melissa Nelson never flirted with each other so there was no sexual harassment claim. The Court found that employers can fire workers they find too attractive and such action does not amount to unlawful discrimination.
In New Hampshire and Massachusetts employers should not bank on that Iowa decision as justification to take such action. First, the decision-makers in both states’ administrative agencies and in the courts may not agree with the Iowa Supreme Court in interpreting its respective state, or the federal, discrimination law. It does not appear that James Knight would have found Melissa Nelson too sexy or irresistible if she had been a male dental assistant. Secondly, while terms such as irresistible are fun in song, all of us who have free will know the term is a justification for weak moral fiber. An employer is a leader and should, in part, lead by example. No company would want any employee to claim he cannot work with someone because his marriage would be jeopardized because the co-worker is too sexy.
This is not to suggest that an employer is required to allow the employees to wear form fitting, distracting clothing. Employers can and, in many circumstances, such as in an office setting, should require all employees to dress conservatively and professionally. For a new, perhaps immature, employee who may envision that her best night club outfit is appropriate in the office, a discrete conversation with that person should be had outside of the ears of their peers as to appropriate conservative, professional office attire. The instructions should occur so as to minimize the embarrassment for that employee.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].