US dental assistant fired for being too “irresistible” – but could it happen here?

In the United States, an Iowa Supreme Court ruling has been upheld that a woman could be fired for being too irresistible to her employer.

The ruling has caused a ruckus in legal circles, but although the case occurred in the United States it begs the question – could a similar judgment happen here?

Melissa Nelson, 33, had been working as a dental assistant for 10 years for her boss James Knight when in 2010 she was fired for being too attractive.

Her employer, a married man, said he was worried the pair would have an affair because of her beauty and pre-emptively fired her on his wife’s insistence.

In December last year an all-male court ruled in favour of the employer, effectively saying employees are able to be fired for being an “irresistible attraction”, even if their performance is exemplary.

At the time, Justice Edward Mansfield in the Iowa District Court said in his decision the firing of Nelson was motivated by feelings and emotions, as she was a “threat to the marriage of Dr Knight”, rather than gender and was therefore not grounds for sex discrimination.

Nelson appealed the decision, but last week the Supreme Court upheld the original ruling.

The decision has been controversial, with some in the US labelling it a win for families, while others have criticised it and said discrimination based on beauty is no different from discriminating against unattractive people.

TressCox Lawyers partner Nick Duggal told SmartCompany the US anti-discrimination laws are based on the same principles as Australian laws and the judgement of the case is surprising.

“In my assessment, the attractiveness of the employee is inextricably linked with her gender, so I would anticipate that dismissing an employee on the base of her attractiveness would be found to be discriminatory under Australian law.”

“There is some discussion that it was based on personal feelings other than gender, but because physical attraction has been identified as a factor, it is close to gender issues as well,” he says.

Favouritism of attractive employees has long been an issue in the workplace, but it’s unusual someone is actually fired for being too good-looking.

Duggal says for the employer to have claimed to have dismissed someone because of “feelings” it would need to be based on more than physical attraction.

“If there was a history of a past affair or relationship with the employee, that could create a set of circumstances which doesn’t attract discrimination laws,” he says.

Duggal says the Iowa court ruling on this case is “inconsistent” with Australian law and this case would likely be classed as discrimination in an Australian context.

“It’s discriminatory to discriminate against a person of a particular gender because they are attractive, just as if they are unattractive, a person should be judged upon their ability to fulfil the requirements of their position,” he says.

This is just the latest issue which raises questions about how female beauty can influence an employee’s treatment in the workplace.

Earlier this year there was a case where a British woman, Laura Fernee, told the Daily Mail she was too good looking to work and this raised significant issues about what is classed as sexual harassment.

“The truth is my good looks have caused massive problems for me when it comes to employment,” she said.

Fernee says she was “constantly asked out” and her male colleagues would leave gifts on her desk.

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