HR Disasters: Too Irresistible for the Job?

Dentist chairs
Every once in a while, a national HR related headline comes along that is just, well, irresistible. While this particular atrocity wasn’t committed by an HR pro, it’s the very reason those in management positions should consult with HR before making any major hiring, or firing decisions. The incident at hand involves a female dental hygienist who was fired for essentially, “being too sexy.”

Dr. James Knight,  admits that Melissa Nelson was “the best dental assistant he ever had.” So why was she fired? Knight’s issues with 10 year veteran employee Nelson, was that she wore wore tight, “distracting,” clothes to work, and his wife, who also worked at the dental practice, felt Nelson was threatening their marriage. The catalyst for the firing was when Dr. James Knight’s wife found a series of platonic text messages between Knight and Nelson, and told him he must fire her to save their marriage.

According to Nelson, all she ever wore were scrubs, and Dr. Knight had a history of making lewd, inappropriate comments about her. For instance, according to court documents, Knight once told Nelson, “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.” Also, in response to a statement Nelson made about her flailing love-life, Knight responded,  “[t]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Surprisingly, Nelson isn’t suing for sexual harassment, she’s suing for wrongful termination.

What’s even more surprising, is that the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a lower courts decision that Nelson wasn’t fired based on gender/sex discrimination.

“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote. “We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Even though the ruling came down in Dr. Knights favor, the damage done to him, and the reputation of his clinic, is devastating. He likely had to pay a huge sum of money to a lawyer to defend himself, and the negative reviews of his practice are already pouring in over the internet. One of the many purposes of having strong, enforced HR policies, is to avoid circumstances like these. Had Dr. Knight followed HR procedure, writing Nelson up for dress code violations, etc., then a lawsuit would have been out of the question in the first place. Instead, Dr. Knight took it upon himself to enforce these “rules” and in the process, gave her plenty of ammunition for a sexual harassment suit, why she didn’t choose to file one instead, is beyond me.

Whether or not you think the all-male Iowa Supreme Court made the right decision, it’s undeniable that from an HR stand point, Dr. Knight made a lot of mistakes. While he won’t be forced to pay for the civil suit, he will undoubtedly suffer the consequences in other ways. Outraged citizen have taken to Yelp and Twitter to express their disgust, and upsets about his unethical, if not illegal actions. Many Iowans are calling for a ban on his practice.

As for Nelson, she had this to say, to CNN’s Don Lemon.

“The last couple of days have just been an emotional roller coaster. I’m trying to stay strong. It’s tough,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right.”

Image By User:Mattes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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