February 22, 2013

Can You Be Fired If You're Too Attractive...

In December 2012 the all male Iowa Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower courts to allow the termination of dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, simply because she was "an irresistible attraction."  You are probably saying, "No, there's no way in this day and age."  Well, that's exactly what happened.

So, here's the story.  Melissa Nelson was a dedicated hardworking dental assistant for Dr. James Knight for over ten years.  As many employer~employee relationships develop, it is not uncommon to become friends.  Both Knight and Nelson were good friends, and their families were friendly, as well.  Although, after almost 10 years, Dr. Knight  became increasingly familiar and began discussing more, shall we say, personal matters.  Commenting about her clothing and asking questions about her personal life that should never have been any of his business.  Nelson, who stated to the court that she always saw her employer as more of a father figure, failed to say anything when he made the inappropriate comments or sent her unprofessional text messages during the final year of her employment.  Essentially, she ignored his awkward statements hoping the problem would simply go away if she did not fuel the situation by responding.

So, now enter Mrs. Knight.  One day she stumbled upon her husband's extracurricular texts and he was busted!  Rather than dealing with the problem, Dr. Knight, at the direction of his wife, opted to terminate his loyal 10-year employee, claiming she had become a "detriment" to his family.  At the meeting where Melissa Nelson was blindsided with the news that she no longer had a job, he made the odd choice to have his pastor present.  Why he would need spiritual guidance during this meeting, I have not a clue.  Seems to this writer that he should have thought about that prior to his abusive comments. But I digress.

So, we have a devastated dental assistant who is now out of a job, a wife who believes firing the "distraction" will dissuade her husband from keeping his thoughts to himself, and a dentist who seems to have escaped the situation unscathed.  In an effort to bring some clarity to the situation, the husband of Nelson paid a visit to the dentist.  Can you imagine being a fly on that wall? Anyway, Dr. Knight had the nerve to say that Melissa had been the best dental assistant he had ever employed, and she did nothing wrong.  He went on to say that they could no longer work together because "the nature of their relationship was a perceived threat."  In my words, he was hot for his dental assistant, his wife figured it out, and basically he was saving himself by throwing the victim under the bus to hopefully make the whole thing go away.

Well, you can imagine that a lawsuit was filed, and it ultimately made its way through the legal channels, finding its way to the Iowa Supreme Court after not prevailing in the lower courts.  And in December 2012 the decision to allow the termination was upheld by the highest court in Iowa. According to Justice Edward M. Mansfield he wrote, "The question we must answer is...whether an employee has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be unlawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction."  The high court answered the question by saying that while not fair, the employer's actions did not constitute unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

So, you may be wondering why this was not a sexual harassment claim.   I wondered the same thing. My guess is that Nelson never said anything so she was barred from making that part of her claim.   I can't judge her though.  Upon reading the high court's decision, I was sadly reminded of a similar situation that I encountered as a young post-college grad in my very first professional gig.  I was young and put in a very awkward predicament with an executive at my company. And what did I do? Nothing.  I was paralyzed with fear and terrified that my job could be in jeopardy if I said anything. So, I can fully relate with Melissa Nelson's hope that the situation would simply go away if she continued to ignore it.

I honestly believe that women have and will continue to endure harassment as long as we continue to be mute and turned a blind eye to inexcusable behavior. As painful and scary as it may be, it is imperative that we speak up for ourselves and those around us who may need support.  I also fully believe that women must continue to seek positions of authority in order to have a collective voice.  So I ask... would the decision have been different on the Iowa Supreme Court if there had been a woman on the high court? Maybe. 

I am sure Melissa Nelson will move forward and Dr. Knight will likely do the same.  Although, I can't help but seethe when I think of the players in this story who wronged Melissa Nelson.  Shame on you, Dr. Knight for your audacity.  Shame on you, Mrs. Knight, who kicked the wrong party to the curb.  Shame on you, pastor whatever your name is for attending the termination meeting, as if God somehow was showing up to support and justify Dr. Knight's decision to eliminate Nelson from the equation after his despicable behavior.  And shame on you, Justice Mansfield and your colleagues, who did not rule that Dr. Knight's actions were anything but a violation of Nelson's civil rights.  I have no doubt that, if the tables were turned and Melissa was male, this scenario would have turned out much differently.  I fully plan to discuss this story with my teenage daughter and encourage you to use this story with any young women you know. We must empower our young females to continue to strive for equality and justice.  I plan to tell my daughter to make her opinions abundantly clear if anyone ever has the nerve to disrespect her in the way that Dr. Knight disrespected Melissa Nelson when all she wanted to do was her job.