Every particle of me wants to disagree with the Iowa court that today protected a male boss’s right to fire an employee simply because he finds her “irresistible.” The court (all men) ruled 7-0 in favor of a dentist, James Knight, who terminated Melissa Nelson, a ten-year member of his staff, in the interests of saving his marriage. Things Nelson had not done: flirt, behave inappropriately. Things she had: exchanged personal but Platonic text messages with the 53-year-old Knight (whom she says she regarded as a “father figure”), worn clothing that “distracted” him.
After Knight’s wife found out about the texts, the couple asked their pastor for advice, and the pastor approved the decision to axe Nelson. This seems like the wrong moral outcome for reasons that Nelson’s attorney articulated: It suggests that “men [can’t] be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’” libidos. How fundamentally unfair that, when guys prove incapable of regulating their urges, women get fired. If I had anything to do with James Knight’s church, I would start looking for a new pastor.
On a legal level, though, Knight’s defense appears pretty airtight. His lawyers bat away the charge of gender discrimination by claiming that their client let Nelson go not because she was a woman, but because her ineffable attractiveness threatened his marriage. This is lame, but valid in the eyes of the law: Bosses are allowed to fire workers for stupid emotional/family reasons, such as to mollify one’s wife or eliminate nest-wrecking temptations. In his decision, Justice Edward Mansfield observes that Knight replaced Nelson with another female staff member, which would imply his motives were not purely sexist. And if Knight were bisexual and Nelson an alluring young man, presumably the dentist would have resorted to the same infuriating—but legal—tactics. (On the other hand, might Nelson have a case against Knight for sexual harassment? According to an AP report, he once told her that “if his pants were bulging,” she should take it as a “sign her clothes were too revealing.” Also that her “infrequent sex life” was “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Ick.)
Clearly, Nelson has fallen prey to the whims of a horndog boss. I’m not unsympathetic to my colleague Hanna Rosin’s argument that such subjectivity opens up “a backdoor to sexism,” that “there should be some employee protection against you’re fired because I think you’re hot.” But yielding to an employer’s irrational preferences—so long as they aren’t explicitly rooted in race, color, religion, sex or national origin—comes with the territory of office work. You can get canned because your laugh grates on your boss’s nerves. Or because he or she misinterpreted something you said. Or, yes, because he or she finds you attractive and would rather not deal.
Another reminder, on this almost-snowy, almost-holiday evening, that just because something’s lawful doesn’t make it right.