Timberlake: Fireable attraction?

Ian Timberlake

Iowa Supreme Court ruled seven to zero that employers can fire employees on the grounds of “irresistible attraction” on Dec. 21, 2012.

Along with his wife, Fort Dodge Dentist James Knight claimed his dental assistant of 10 years, Melissa Nelson, was a threat to their marriage. Nelson, married with two kids, was accused of wearing “tight clothes” and being a sexual distraction. She wore a generic healthcare assistant uniform seen in most doctors’ offices and hospitals. Knight, ordered by his wife and counseled by pastor (he is a self-proclaimed deeply religious man), saw it fitting to terminate the “stellar” employee.

The Iowa high court said this was not a violation of the Civil Rights Act as the reasons for termination were not based on gender, but emotion. Now, Nelson works all but one day a week as a waitress.

Knight confided to Nelson’s husband that he feared his texts to her would develop into an affair. At the same time, Nelson, 21 years younger, claimed she never once had an attraction to Knight and looked at the middle-aged man as more of a father figure who happened to be her employer. Knight’s wife also worked with them and discovered the text messages in regards to family matters; soon after, she demanded he fire his dental assistant.

This is just another prime example of religious fear of lust followed by spousal jealousy, no matter how innocent or irrational.

Knight’s wife does not trust her husband, does not trust her ten-year fellow employee and does not trust the fact that she is a married mother. Knight does not trust the restraint of himself nor the composure of Nelson, should he put a move on her.

Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, made a comment that has made news across the globe, saying, “These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires. If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it.”

I completely agree with her attorney. The all-male high court virtually ruled unanimously that it is the responsibility of the employee (in this case, a woman) to be sure their associates and managers are not sexually attracted to them, for fear of losing their job — regardless of how great an employee they are.

A setback for Iowa, and gender rights in general, the case goes to show some people (high court included) can’t see the demonstrable contradiction to equality this ruling imposes.

The ruling technically complied with state law. An employer can avoid discrimination charges if family members are being favored. An employer can also terminate an employee if the business relationship causes tension in the family. Realistically, this situation applies even if the gender roles were reversed, or between people of the same sex.

Just as this case is a first for Iowa, I doubt we will see much of this unfold again, unless it is as an excuse to fire someone for reasons other than what is allowed under Iowa law. In Knight’s case, he sincerely believed that Nelson was a threat to his fidelity and marriage so long as she was employed.

Knight’s attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said, “While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman. The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage. I don’t view this as a decision that was either pro-women or opposed to women rights at all. In my view, this was a decision that followed the appropriate case law.”

Sometimes the law isn’t complete or is flat out wrong as times change. Times have changed, and in the case of gender equality, they began to change a long time ago. I would understand it fitting for Nelson to be fired if actual flirtation and/or fornication took place, but they didn’t. The law is upholding the assumption the employer can’t control his sexual urges and penalizes the employee for that.

I’ll take it a step further and equate it with something made famous by Colorado Senate runner, Ken Buck, saying a raped woman had it coming with the attire she chose to wear.


Ian Timberlake is a senior in aerospace engineering from Chicago, Ill.