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Firing of ‘too attractive’ assistant was not wrongful discharge

An Iowa dental assistant sued her former employer for wrongful termination after she was fired for what her boss said was being too attractive. In a case that went to the state’s Supreme Court, the assistant claimed that she had done nothing wrong and her civil rights were violated, as the dentist’s only basis for firing her was that she was a woman. Ultimately, the justices ruled that bosses can fire employees that they find too attractive and distracting.

The assistant had worked for the dentist for over 10 years. Every other employee in the dental practice, including the assistant he hired to replace her, was also female. The defendant told the court that he’d complained to her numerous times for her clothing that was revealing or too tight and was therefore a distraction to his work.

The assistant claimed she had never flirted with him, but they had started exchanging text messages. Most of these messages were work-related, but the dentist had initiated some with sexual implications — texts that she never answered.

When the dentist’s wife found out about the text messages, she demanded that her husband fire the assistant, saying that the relationship was a threat to their marriage. The dentist fired the woman at the beginning of 2010. The court’s ruling concluded that the dentist didn’t violate the state’s civil rights act.

Texas employers need to be cautious to avoid instances like these, where a claim of sexual harassment or wrongful discharge can be ambiguous. The dental assistant’s case could have easily gone the other way and resulted in a costly ruling against her former employer.

Source: Reuters, “Employers can fire workers they find too sexy, Iowa court rules,” James B. Kelleher, Dec. 21, 2012

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