On December 21st, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that male employers can fire female employees for being too attractive.
At least, that’s the dominant media interpretation of the state high court’s decision in re Nelson v. Knight (11-1857, 2012). Much of this interpretation has been fueled by the revelation of certain undisputed facts Justice Edward Mansfield reveals in his written opinion, facts which were “set forth … in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Melissa Nelson” because the lower court’s decision had been a summary judgment rather than a jury verdict.
What facts are these? Nelson worked for the defendant, dentist James Knight, for ten years; in the last year or so of their professional relationship, Knight started complaining that Nelson was wearing clothes that were too tight; once, when he texted her (!) that the shirt she’d worn that day was too tight and she replied (!!) that she didn’t think he was being fair, “Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going [bold font mine].” Another time, when Nelson made a statement indicating she and her husband were having infrequent marital relations (!!!), Knight commented, “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
In essence, then, the decision presents James Knight as a right old pig engaging in objectification, and local women have reacted to the decision by bombing him in Yelp with negative reviews. “I went to this dentist when I first moved to Iowa,” wrote one woman, Caroline D. “While his staff was mostly friendly and his office was somewhat clean, HE really gave me the creeps … trust me, don't go to this weirdo, unless you want to feel verrry uncomfortable.”
For my own part, I believe the Court guilty of a high redefinition fallacy, although it draws from an extensive backing of similar cases from other jurisdictions. Even granting the Court’s argument that Knight’s motivation for firing Nelson arose from the particulars of their relationship — from Nelson being a specific woman, with attributes specific to her alone — in the absence of any established fact of homosexual leanings, we may safely presume those attributes would not have presented a challenge to Knight’s marriage had they manifested themselves in a male employee.
However, incidents such as those I’ve indicated with exclamation points indicate a level of intimacy to their otherwise professional relationship that bears some comment. In her blog on The Guardian Express (linked above), Dawn Cranston remarks:
A few things bothered me about this case; not the fact that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against this woman, I think it was the right decision. My consternation comes from Nelson herself; how was it she felt Dr. Knight was a father-figure to her but he knew about her infrequent sex life? I would certainly not speak to my father about my sex life; much less complain about the regularity of my escapades.Giving Nelson the benefit of the doubt; if she were so bothered by the text messages (which she does not complain about), then wouldn’t we have seen a sexual harassment suit instead of a complaint after she was fired? Instead, she engages in texting her boss, only then when they are both caught by the wife and asked to leave while it is still innocent flirting; she feels she has a claim.
Most of us, I suppose, would like to have bosses with whom we could be friends beyond the water cooler. But as part of our operating reality we recognize that some kinds of relationship are more detrimental to the working environment than others. Cronyism, nepotism, favoritism and other isms all carry baggage with them that tend to interfere with the proper running of a business and prevent the rise of a true meritocracy; sexism is only the most recently recognized of these office-wrecking human traits.
Pace Cranston, that Nelson felt comfortable enough around Knight to even mention her infrequent marital couplings in his presence speaks as much about him as does his Lamborghini crack: being a father-figure almost automatically implies being perceived as a wise counselor to whom one can entrust sensitive personal information. On the other hand, it was incumbent on Knight to maintain “arm’s length” separation between himself and Nelson as part of his responsibility as her employer; her sex life (or lack thereof) was really — you’ll pardon the intentional pun — none of his blankety-blank business, and he ought to have said so. Nor did he have any real need to ask how often she achieved orgasm.
While I’m willing to accept at face value Nelson’s statement that she never flirted nor sought a sexual relationship with Knight, I can’t completely exculpate her. Nelson denied that her clothes were inappropriate for the office; but, strictly speaking, that wasn’t her call to make: if the boss says they’re too tight, then they’re too tight, whether the boss is male or female. To continue to wear them over his objections — regardless of how those objections were phrased — can be construed as deliberately provocative.
Contrary to her own declaration, Nelson contributed substantially to her dismissal beyond “exist[ing] as a female.”[*] Her intentions may have been completely innocent; yet her behavior was oblivious to the discomfort she caused her boss and the jealousy she incited in his wife.
Nevertheless, while our civil rights legislation may not be “general fairness laws”, they were meant to curb specific unfairnesses created by specific differences such as sex. That other women worked in the office with whom Knight behaved with more restraint does not change the fact that Nelson’s womanliness was a necessary precondition of his reaction to her, and can’t therefore be dismissed because he doesn’t treat other women the way he treated her.
So no, you can’t be fired in Iowa for being too attractive. You can, however, be fired for making your boss’ wife too insecure about their marriage. It’s just not a good idea to be too close to your boss.
And with that, on this seventh day of Christmas, I say, "Let's put 2012 to bed!"
Have a blessed and safe New Year.
[*] “According to her affidavit and her deposition testimony, [Jeanne Knight] had several complaints about Nelson. These included Nelson’s texting with Dr. Knight, Nelson’s clothing, Nelson’s alleged flirting with Dr. Knight, Nelson’s alleged coldness at work toward her (Ms. Knight), and Nelson’s ongoing criticism of another dental assistant. She added that ‘[Nelson] liked to hang around after work when it would be just her and [Dr. Knight] there. I thought it was strange that after being at work all day and away from her kids and husband that she would not be anxious to get home like the other [women] in the office’” (Nelson, p.4). Even if we grant Jeanne Knight’s testimony to be biased by her jealousy, it doesn’t follow that her jealousy was ungrounded; that would be a circular argument.