Does Your Boss Have the Right to Fire You For Being Physically Irresistible?
Most people would probably agree that it isn’t fair for an employer to fire a worker because of his or her looks. But in America, employment-at-will is the law of the land. That means you can be fired at any time, for almost any reason, or for no reason at all. So fair doesn’t really enter into it. You can be heaved out onto the street for anything from the color of your shirt, to your haircut, to your sexual and reproductive choices.
There are some significant exceptions to this state of affairs. Most union contracts include “just cause” provisions, which mean an employer has to have a good reason to fire you, and many public employees are similarly protected. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act defends against employment discrimination by race, gender, age, religion, disability, genetic makeup, or national origin. (Some states protect LGBTQ people against employment discrimination, but the feds do not.) But these protections are sometimes difficult to enforce, as few employers explicitly cite race or gender as the sole reason for sacking a worker.
But what if your boss fires you simply because he or she just thinks you are too damn attractive? Do Title VII’s protections cover such an eventuality? Don’t bet on it. A case decided this July by the Iowa Supreme Court seems to show that when Title VII clashes with employment-at-will, the Civil Rights Act doesn’t necessarily come out on top.
Here are the facts of the case. Nothing physically sexual occurred between Dr. James Knight, a dentist, and his assistant, Melissa Nelson. But he made several suggestive comments toward her, which she neither denounced nor reciprocated. Nelson had worked in Knight's dental offices for over 10 years and their relationship, as described in the court’s decision, appears to have been friendly. It included text exchanges about non-work related issues.
In the year and a half before Nelson was sacked, Knight began commenting, in a salacious fashion, about the supposed tightness of her clothing. On one occasion he told her that she would know if her clothing was too tight because his erection would be visible through his pants. (Nelson denies that her clothing was ever anything other than professional and that she always wore a lab coat when Knight asked her to.) When she mentioned infrequent sex at home, the doctor responded: “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” On another occasion he texted her to ask about the frequency of her orgasms. She did not respond.
Near the end of 2009, Knight’s wife learned that her husband had been texting with Nelson. After consulting with their pastor, they agreed Knight should fire Nelson. He did so on Jan. 4, 2010, presenting her with an envelope containing a month's severance pay. When Nelson’s husband confronted Knight, the latter admitted, according to court documents, “that she was the best dental assistant he ever had…[and] nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
On Aug. 12, 2010 Nelson brought action against Knight, claiming that he discriminated against her because of her gender, which is illegal under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Iowa state law, and that she never would have been fired had she been male. (Most states have laws similar to Title VII on the books, which is why this ended up in state, not federal court.) Nelson did not argue that his behavior constituted sexual harassment. Last December, the Iowa Supreme Court decided against her, but then agreed to reconsider the case. However, its July 12 decision came to almost the exact same conclusion, with a bit more emphasis on the limits of the case: “The employee did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim; we are not deciding how such a claim would have been resolved in this or any other case."