I’m Too Sexy It Hurts… My Employment
Studies often show that attractive workers tend to get hired sooner, get promotions more quickly, and are paid more handsomely than their less-attractive co-workers. But can good looks get you fired without any job protection? According to a unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court, they can.
In Nelson v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court considered whether a female employee could be lawfully terminated because her boss believed that she was an irresistible attraction and keeping her employed was a threat to his marriage. Nelson, the terminated employee, had worked for Knight’s dental practice for ten years along with Knight’s wife. Ultimately, Knight’s wife became jealous and demanded that Knight terminate Nelson. Knight too believed that if Nelson remained employed he would likely have (or attempt to have) an affair with her. Consequently, Knight notified Nelson that she was terminated because she was too irresistible and a threat to his marriage. Nelson then brought a cause of action against Knight alleging that she was terminated because of her gender in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Nelson did not allege at any time that Knight sexually harassed her.
The Iowa Supreme Court upheld Nelson’s termination. In doing so, the Court drew an important distinction between an isolated employment decision based on personal relationship issues (which is lawful in most cases) and an employment decision based strictly on one’s gender (which is unlawful in most cases). The court reasoned that this case fell under the first scenario in which Knight terminated Nelson because of personal relationship issues and not because of her gender. Therefore, the court found that Nelson’s termination was lawful under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Although this may seem like a novel decision, it should not be a surprise. In New Jersey, it is well-established that physical attractiveness is not a protected class under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. It is also well established that an employee can be terminated because of relationship issues stemming from a consensual workplace relationship with his or her employer absent sexual harassment. In applying these principles, it is fair to conclude that a similar decision might have been rendered by a court in New Jersey. On the other hand, Nelson was a threat to Knight’s marriage only because she is a woman; thus, it is not difficult to imagine that a court in New Jersey might have gone the other way.