Recently, a Fort Dodge, Iowa woman was fired after 10 years on the job for being too “irresistibly attractive” to her married boss. A court upheld that firing decision as the employer’s right (despite a collegial, uncompromised working relationship between them lasting years).
That’s likely to seem odd on many levels—to both men and women, and maybe even to aliens. But for the moment, accept it as reasonable and as a template for other similarly weird firing—or hiring—decisions.(More about that odd Iowa decision, below.)
Other Applications of a Judicial ‘Tempt-Plate’
I can’t say whether, as an oddball outcome, it represents a legal precedent. But is does seem to have groundbreaking potential as a temptation-based firing template—a “tempt-plate”, to coin a phrase, if applied to other dismissals or refusals to hire for being “too tempting”.
To explore, understand and apply that tempt-plate, I present the following hypothetical possibilities as tempt-plate cases of firing or not hiring because of unacceptable temptations. Following the “logic” of the aforementioned firing of the overly attractive female employee, it’s not hard to imagine someone being denied (continuing) employment in virtue of “irresistibly” tempting the boss to do any of the following:
- Work out in a gym: The office Adonis is ripped and chiseled, so the boss, also male, envious or merely inspired, feels extraordinarily—yes, irresistibly—tempted to join a gym. The problem is, he has a herniated disc that is chronically inflamed. He fires Adonis on the grounds of “injurious temptation” and the court, citing the precedent of the fired hottie, upholds the decision to fire Mr. Muscles. The ruling: “Despite any claim that it is solely the employer’s responsibility to exercise good judgment in the pursuit of fitness, the issue at hand is primarily a matter of health. Like secondhand smoke that is both unwanted and injurious, the continued inescapable presence of a perfectly proportioned and chiseled male employee poses a serious risk to the health of the employer. The court finds for the defendant, the employer.”
- Resume smoking: The boss quit smoking a year ago, with no relapses. But, from his window, he can see his secretary smoking in the parking lot, creating a mysteriously irresistible temptation to resume smoking. So, he fires her, on the grounds of “injurious temptation”. She sues, but the court rules against her, presenting the following argument: “Despite any claim that it is solely the employer’s responsibility to exercise good judgment in the pursuit of his own health, the issue at hand is primarily a matter of an imposed health risk. Like secondhand smoke that is both unwanted and injurious, the continued visible presence of a smoking employee (even in an authorized smoking zone) poses a serious risk to the health of the employer. The court finds for the defendant, the employer.”
The counter-argument that he should close his blinds or simply not look out the window is rejected as an infringement of his personal freedoms, namely “freedom of choice” or “liberty”. (This ruling strongly conveys the message that justice may be blind, but is not blinds.)
- Quit smoking: The boss is a chain smoker. But, from his office, he can see his entire staff not smoking in the parking lot. So, he fires all of them. They sue, but the court rules against them, presenting the following argument: “Despite any claim that it is solely the employer’s responsibility to exercise good judgment in the pursuit of health, the issue at hand is primarily a matter of workplace harassment in the form of group pressure, however subtle. Like secondhand smoke that is both unwanted and injurious, the continued visible presence of a non-smoking employee (in an authorized non-smoking zone) poses a serious risk to the employer’s right to feel comfortable in the workplace and, secondarily, constitutes an infringement of his freedom of choice, inasmuch as the pressure exerted by the plaintiffs constitutes duress and harassment. The court finds for the defendant, the employer.”
The counter-argument that he should close his blinds or simply not look out the window is, here too, rejected as an infringement of his personal freedoms.
- Give everybody a raise: A Chinese boss in a huge computer assembly plant feels compassion for exhausted workers working for a minuscule fraction of what German workers make on average. Irresistibly tempted to raise their barely subsistence wages, reduce hours and improve their cramped dorms, he fires everyone, replacing each with an even more poorly paid, overworked and cattle-crated worker. A worker class-action initiative against him fails, the court ruling this to be a case of “injurious temptation”, since the spike in wages and other costs would imperil the company’s bottom line and viability.
- Have children: An unmarried boss is “irresistibly tempted” to date and have a serious relationship with his utterly charming secretary, who is divorced with children. But, he knows that the responsibility of raising children will compromise or even obliterate all of his cherished freedoms as a single dude. So, in self-defense, so to speak, and to ensure that he never succumbs to any temptation to ask her to marry him, he fires her. The court convened to adjudicate the predictable suit rules this to be a case of –you guessed it—“injurious temptation”, in the form of a grave risk to the boss’s unmarried relationship with himself (or women who tempt him only in other ways).
How Just was Iowan Justice?
Each of these cases cites the Iowa firing and ruling as a precedent and example of what I’m calling “injurious temptation”. The more defensible that ruling is, the more defensible these hypothetical rulings become. So, just how reasonable, fair, just and defensible was the Iowa ruling?
The gist of the all-male Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the firing of mother and spouse, Melissa Nelson, 32, was this: The court ruled that bosses can fire an employee they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employee has not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong.
Although arguably “unfair” and despite her boss’s characterization of her as a stellar employee, the firing was, in the judgment of Judge Edward Mansfield, explaining the 7-0 vote, not illegal, even though Nelson was demonstrably never flirtatious or open to any affair with her boss.
Despite reports that her married boss, dentist James Knight, 53, characterized her work performance as excellent, the court agreed that the firing was legal because it was not based on discrimination against a member of a protected category of employee, such as a disabled worker—in this instance, a female (especially since her replacement is female). Specifically, it was not gender discrimination.
Our notions of fairness seem to embrace the idea of not firing without performance-related cause or evidence of moral turpitude, criminality, etc. Unfortunately, the Iowa Civil Rights act apparently does not offer that kind of broad protection.
As a twist, it was reported that Knight’s jealous wife, who pressured him to fire Nelson, works in the same office, providing an excellent observation post and effective deterrent to any workplace shenanigans.
Hence, her husband’s attraction to Nelson must have truly been “irresistible” if being under his wife’s nose, if not her thumb, was no deterrent to prima facie maritally (if not legally risky) behavior, such as, according to a December 21, 2012, Huffington Post article, complaining “that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion. He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
Why didn’t Nelson and her attorney file a harassment suit? Reportedly, she did not find his behavior particularly offensive (which under a separate bizarre template might be classified as “irresistible non-repulsion attraction”, i.e., cases in which bosses find themselves irresistibly attracted to employees because they are not repulsed, and therefore fire them).
The Best Way to Deal with Tempting Employees
Given that there is the grave risk that courts in other jurisdictions may not rule for bosses in cases like these, it may be wise to find an alternative to firing employees who create irresistible temptations. On careful reflection, I think there is one sure way to reduce the risk of romantic temptations in the office, short of firing the employee.
To make sure no employee gradually wears down your resistance and tempts you past a point of no return, do the smart thing.
Hire a temp.