The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
Being physically attractive, research has shown, pays off in career terms. As a rule, a good-looking person finds it easier to get a job and gets more raises than someone on the homely side. It may be unfair, but a pleasing appearance is usually a financial asset.
That fact won't be much comfort to Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant whose experience is quite the opposite. The 32-year-old married mother of two had worked more than a decade for dentist James Knight — who said she was the best assistant he ever had. But in 2010, he fired her because he found her to be, in the words of the Iowa Supreme Court, an "irresistible attraction."
Knight says he was sometimes distracted by apparel that showed off her figure too well. Nelson, for her part, says she wore scrubs, and never dressed inappropriately.
If anyone misbehaved in this case, it seems to have been the dentist, not the assistant. Knight's wife, who also worked in the Fort Dodge dental practice, was not pleased to learn that he was texting with Nelson and demanded that she be fired as "a big threat to our marriage." So the dentist complied.
Nelson said she never encouraged sexual thoughts and comments from Knight, whom she regarded as a "friend and father figure." (She also never complained about the remarks, which she didn't regard as sexual harassment.) She sued, claiming he had violated state law by discriminating against her on the basis of gender. After all, the dental assistant contended, she "did not do anything to get herself fired except exist as a female."
But the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that even if Knight behaved badly, he didn't engage in sex discrimination. All his other dental assistants have been female, as was the person hired to replace Nelson. The dismissal, the justices found, was "driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person." Knight's decision to get rid of Nelson to protect his marriage, however innocent her conduct may have been, is legally permissible.
This is one of those cases where the specifics of the law seem to be at odds with basic fairness. If Knight wasn't guilty of illegal discrimination, he was certainly guilty of being a creep and a boor — not to mention a tightwad, having rewarded Nelson's years of stellar work with a single month's severance pay.
About the best that can be hoped is that the publicity surrounding the poor treatment Nelson received will attract the interest of dentists at another practice who would place a high value on her excellent skills and performance — and pay no attention to her looks.
And Knight? Maybe he needs to find a new place to apply his Novocain.
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