Pop quiz: What do you do if you’re married but you’re sexually attracted to someone who works for you?
A) Aggressively hit on the employee in the office.
B) Daydream occasionally but take no action, because you are an adult who can control yourself.
C) Fire the employee.
Now meet Iowa dentist James Knight, described by his lawyer as a “very religious and moral individual.” He went with option C, firing his assistant because she posed an “irresistible attraction.” Good news, though: It’s legal!
Knight hired Melissa Nelson as a dental assistant in 1999, and she worked there for more than a decade. His wife worked for his business, too. Knight and Nelson sometimes exchanged text messages outside of work, and when Knight’s wife found out about it in 2009, she demanded he fire Nelson. He did so in 2010, with a pastor acting as a witness as he told her that she had become a “detriment” to his family, despite being “the best dental assistant he ever had.”
If your definition of an “HR mistake” is confined only to what’s illegal, then this story is surprisingly cut and dried. The all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that Nelson’s termination did not qualify as sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Knight says he was uncomfortable with how Nelson dressed in the office near the end of her tenure,
and asked her to dress differently. Nelson told CNN’s Don Lemon this week that she wore scrubs. According to the court’s decision, he told her that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.” When Nelson commented on how infrequently she was having sex, Knight compared it to “having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Once he asked her how often she orgasmed.
The judge who wrote the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision wrote that the court was tasked with deciding “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” The court did not deny that Knight “treated Nelson badly,” but ruled that he had not engaged in gender discrimination when firing Nelson upon his wife’s request.
I’ll leave that narrow legal question up to the courts, though the legal minds at Above the Law have some choice words about it. But I do hereby rule that Knight acted like a misogynist baby in firing a woman because of his own apparent lack of self-control. The “irresistible attraction” excuse casts men as helpless potential rapists and cheaters, and women as dangerous enablers. As Nelson’s own lawyer put it, “These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires. If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it.”