Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dr. Feelgood

An interesting legal case has surfaced in Fort Dodge, Iowa and concerns a dentist named James Knight and his assistant of ten years Melissa Nelson. Despite her stellar work record, Mr. Knight fired Mrs. Nelson because he found her “irresistibly attractive” and feared that her continued employment posed a significant threat to his marriage. The termination came after Dr. Knight’s wife (also employed at his office) found text messages between the two she felt would lead to her husband’s infidelity. After receiving the blessing of his pastor, Dr. Knight fired Mrs. Nelson and provided her with a 1-month severance package.

Mrs. Nelson, who denies any flirting or impropriety of any kind, filed suit against Knight for gender discrimination and it went to the Iowa Supreme Court where the all-male panel unanimously upheld her firing. They reasoned that since Nelson was replaced by another female employee, no gender discrimination took place. They found that Dr. Knight’s actions were motivated by the preservation of his marriage and this, in and of itself, does not violate state law.
Dr. Knight
During the proceedings, Dr. Knight accused Mrs. Nelson of wearing clothing that was “too tight” but she insists she only ever wore standard scrubs. Dr. Knight also admitted to remarking that Mrs. Nelson would know her outfit was too tight when she noticed that his “pants were bulging.” Court documents also revealed that the doctor had sent her a sexually-themed text message and allegedly advised her that an infrequent sex life for her would be “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Despite the case details, Nelson did not allege sexually harassment because she did not feel like his comments had particularly offended her. Her attorney sees the decision as a setback for women in the workplace, remarking that the implications of the ruling are that women should somehow be held responsible for their male employer’s sexual desires. Since her termination, Mrs. Nelson has been working as a waitress and has no plans to pursue her lawsuit any further.

There are many things wrong with this picture, and while I applaud Mr. Knight’s commitment to monogamy, I do not think it would have been too much to ask for him to secure her another job with a colleague since she had been a stellar employee for over a decade. She wasn’t fired because she was hot; she was fired because his wife discovered that he thought she was hot. Say what you will about the pharmaceutical industry, but no one has ever accused them of letting a representative go for being overwhelmingly comely.

What I cannot understand is why she did not allege sexual harassment. There can only be two explanations for this and both of them are disturbing:

1.      Dr. Knight had created a workplace so saturated with sexual innuendos and double entendres that by comparison his comments and text messages to Mrs. Nelson were borderline respectful.
2.       Mrs. Nelson at least passively reciprocated his interest.

While it is possible that Mrs. Nelson enjoyed and perhaps even encouraged these advances, my bet is on the former possibility. She probably viewed him as a harmless flirt who stood between her and a career in waitressing and therefore was willing to overlook the occasional automobile metaphor. If this is true, her biggest mistake was giving him too much leeway.

Let me tell you something,  if your workplace dress code is solely contingent upon the prominence of your supervisor’s “trouser bulge” it could be time to retain legal counsel and update your resume. Furthermore, I don’t know that any of his female patients will feel comfortable with Dr. Protrusion putting them under for a root canal after hearing this.

I can sympathize with Dr. Knight’s wife for acting in the best interest of her marriage, but if your husband feels that comfortable discussing the current status of his crotch with a female subordinate, trading one young woman for another may just be treating the symptom.  Also, if it took ten years of workplace gestation for a colleague to become suddenly “irresistible” to your husband, it either takes a really long time for her to come out of her shell or it had taken nine and a half years for him to work his way through the entire hygienist rotation and start hitting on her.

This is also a reason I do not envy pastors. Can you imagine this conversation?

“Reverend, my wife and I feel it would be best for our marriage if I fire a loyal, hardworking employee simply because she has the misfortune of looking attractive in a set of neutrally-colored scrubs. This attribute could conceivably lead to an extramarital affair if there was any reason to believe she shared my sentiments. Therefore, I am afraid the only prudent course of action would be to abruptly terminate her family’s source of income. What do you think?”
“Did you address your concerns with the employee in question in order to provide her an opportunity to alter her wardrobe to something less appealing or arrange for a transfer to another dental practitioner?”
“Well father, I did tell her she made me happy in my pants.”
“I see……..”

This must be quite a mixed bag for Mr. Nelson. Their household income was significantly reduced by her termination but he is also one of the few guys at work who can tell his friends that his wife was let go due to “excessive hotness.” At least working as a waitress will keep her safe from the unwanted advances of older men....

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