Fired for being too attractive

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The Iowa Supreme Court confirmed its finding that a dentist who fired his attractive assistant to save his marriage was in the clear – but how would the case play out in Canada?

The court had been asked to reconsider its decision concerning dentist James Knight, who fired assistant Melissa Nelson despite her excellent work performance over 10 years as his employee. Knight claimed he was concerned he would start an affair with Nelson so fired her to save his marriage.

The court said bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, even if the subordinates have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behaviour, because it was motivated by feelings, not gender. The case could still be appealed to the federal level.

Ottawa employment lawyer Sean Bawden said he couldn’t see the dentist getting away with this kind of firing here, and since Iowa has at-will firing the dentist would have been better off to simply not give any reason.

“[Nelson] would have been entitled to notice, she likely would have been entitled to award for the manner of dismissal and she may have gotten an award for human rights on the basis that her sex was a contributing factor to his decision to let her go,” Bawden told HRM.

Bawden said there was a stronger chance under Ontario law that the Human Rights Tribunal would have said her gender was at least a contributing factor to dismissal, and therefore that the dentist’s actions were wrongful. Regardless, she would have been entitled to notice, which may have mitigated the results.

The Iowa court claimed their decision was taking a stand for marriage values – a statement a Canadian court was unlikely to make.

 “You just wouldn’t see that kind of moral statement from a court in Canada,” Bawden said. “I think the dentist would have avoided making the comment, realistically, and I don’t think the court would say that was a legitimate reason to fire someone.”

“I could see it going the other way – I imagine an award of aggravated damages for being a creep would likely follow.”

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