Feminist Philosophers

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Are you irresistible? You can be fired for that. December 22, 2012

Filed under: appearance,law,work — philodaria @ 1:13 am

I’m no legal scholar, but it strikes me as wrong (on so many levels) that you could be fired because some one else can’t keep their libido in check.

A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

Read the full story here.

 

26 Responses to “Are you irresistible? You can be fired for that.”

  1. swallerstein Says:

    In answer to the question, I am very resistible and even turn-off-able, but I agree that the decision is wrong on many many levels.

    It’s completely infantile to fire someone because she’s (or he’s) a temptation.

    You can’t always get what or who you want, maybe because who you want doesn’t want you or maybe because one of you has other commitments and life goes on.

    Should a teacher who has a student whom they find very attractive get rid of the student or learn to live with the fact that the student is attractive and yet given the student-teacher relationship, it is better to keep a professional distance?

    We all need to grow up. However, some people seem to grow down.

  2. Unfortunately, if it’s an “Employment at Will” state, this is legal.

  3. [...] in FFS, via Feminist Philosophers, it turns out that in Iowa you can be fired if your boss finds you too attractive. The seven judges [...]

  4. Why should that be wrong?
    If I employ somebody and I don’t get along with him or her or I don’t feel good around him or her, I will release him or her of his or her duties. After all, it’s my business. I could also close it completely if I wanted to. As long as this is not based on race or gender or political belief, it is not discriminatory. It is a personal choice.
    Or would you also find it wrong if somebody was hired for being attractive? When you hire people, you need to make a choice and often you can’t tell much about competence before giving somebody a chance. So you’ll have to go with your gut feeling.

  5. swallerstein Says:

    Andreas:

    According to my code, if I hire someone, whatever the reasons I hire them for, once they are hired, once they are “in my life”, I have stronger obligations towards them than before I hired them.

    So while it might not be wrong for me to hire someone whom I found very attractive, it would be wrong for me to then fire them because I found them irresistible.

    Now, I always like people whom I find attractive. I don’t form fatal passions where overpowering attractions are mixed with hatred.

    I like to help people whom I like, so I can’t see firing someone whom I find attractive, even if they don’t find me to be physically attractive.

    Maybe that’s just my idiosyncratic code.

  6. swallerstein, I agree that hiring somebody puts obligations on you towards that person. That’s the nature of an employment contract, and it works both ways, by the way. No need for an “idiosyncratic code”.
    But that is why you fire them if you want to get rid of these obligations. Accepting an obligation of which both parties know that it can be terminated (by both sides, mind you) does not tie you for life.

  7. swallerstein Says:

    Andreas:

    I agree that hiring someone does not tie you for life, but it seems that once someone is part of my “world”, I should strive that their leaving my world be of mutual agreement or at least satisfactory for both of us.

    It’s like divorce. Some people can’t live together.

    Fine. But if I divorce, I try that we both end up o.k., as friends or at least respecting each other.

    So rather than just firing the person, I’d try to help them find a new job, a job that suits them better, with a boss who is less neurotic than me.

  8. The real test of that would be if a female supervisor were to fire a male subordinate for feelings and emotions rather than gender.

  9. Mark Says:

    I think swallerstein is right that it’s infantile to have such trouble controlling your libido, but A Moser is right that what the dentist did should not be illegal. Employers do undertake obligations to employees by hiring them, but so do employees undertake obligations to their employers, and I doubt we would think there was serious offense if an employee quit because of sexual tension with employer. Of course, in today’s job market employees are much more beholden to employers than vice versa, but I don’t think that changes the nature of the obligations.

  10. Student Says:

    I was really surprised by some of the reactions here. But now that I think about it, I can’t help but think that intuitions are going to be highly informed by experience (or lack thereof) and that there will be a relatively consistent gender divide there.

  11. Other Student Says:

    Student: I’m sort of confused as to why you think there will be a gender divide on reactions to this. Is the idea that women are more likely to be seen as irresistible by their employers than men? Or is the idea that women are more likely to be affected by looks-related issues in general than men? Or something else that I’m missing?

    It seems like the latter would make men even more outraged by this than women. But surely the more natural divide under the first interpretation is between attractive and unattractive individuals.

  12. Bijan Parsia Says:

    Don’t forget that she worked for this guy for 10 years and was considered a stellar performer.

    I don’t think he should have the arbitrary right to fire her based on non-performance and non-her reasons. Yes, he could shut down the business entirely, but so?

  13. Student Says:

    Hi Other Student. I just meant that given social norms around dating/flirting/expressions of attraction, women will tend to have had a greater amount of experience of being explicitly told that someone is attracted to them (and I said “relatively consistent” because I suspect these are tendencies, and won’t apply to all). While it might be that men and women are equally as likely to be seen as attractive by their employers, I think it’s more likely that this sentiment will be expressed to women.

    In general, I also think there’s a broad pattern of thinking about men as though they can’t help themselves when it comes to dealing with sexual attraction—and while I think this way of thinking is deeply insulting to men and problematic on it’s own, given the legal decision, it’s more likely to adversely affect women employees when the standard of whether or not it’s permissible to fire someone for being attractive is whether or not someone is “irresistible” to you.

  14. Other Student Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Student. I agree with just about everything you said.

    I do wish we had more insight into the conversations had between Knight and his wife and Knight and his pastor. It seems like he genuinely was trying to make the best out of what he and others viewed as a bad situation. Not to say that the decision was ultimately the right one, of course.

  15. Mark Says:

    “I don’t think he should have the arbitrary right to fire her based on non-performance and non-her reasons.”

    Nobody thinks he should have an arbitrary right.
    The employee can quit for quite personal reasons; the employer can fire her for reasons that don’t have to do with her being a star performer, too.
    It would be different if we were talking about a bureaucratic personnel office at a big corporation. This is just two or three people working together every day. I don’t see any significant difference between quitting because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension with your boss and firing your employee because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension.

  16. Bijan Parsia Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I interpreted Andreas’s comment at 4 to be supporting a fairly arbitrary right.

    It would be different if we were talking about a bureaucratic personnel office at a big corporation. This is just two or three people working together every day. I don’t see any significant difference between quitting because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension with your boss and firing your employee because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension.

    I guess I’m unclear why being a small business should grant you more power over your employees. That’s not obvious to me at all.

    If someone is being disruptive, I can see that as a reason to fire. But here the disruptive person is not the employee.

  17. Mark Says:

    Bijan,

    Andreas was quite explicit: “As long as this is not based on race or gender or political belief…” But maybe I have misunderstood what you meant by an arbitrary right. I assumed you meant a right to act arbitrarily. Andreas plainly does not endorse such a right.

    I guess I’m unclear why being a small business should grant you more power over your employees. That’s not obvious to me at all.

    Oh, well, it is quite clear in US law.
    My point was that in a very small business, the employer and employee are in relatively equal power relations. The sorts of reasons for which an employee can quit are also the sorts of reasons for which an employer can fire. In a large business the positions are not symmetric at all.
    That’s what my last sentence was getting at.

  18. Bijan Parsia Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Well, that’s why I qualified it the second time around as “fairly arbitrary”. That is, I think the norm should be closer to firing for cause where cause is fairly tightly related to work performance. To be even clearer, I think that firing people for non-dicriminatory arbitrary reasons is not a good idea. (Not that I agree that this was non-discriminatory.)

    I agree that it’s clear what US law does (esp. in at will states), but I’m unclear why that’s a good thing. I believe in stronger labor protections.

    I don’t understand how the size of the organization affects the symmetry. I can equally quit a large or a small organization because I have a problem with attraction to my boss. So, by symmetry they can fire me because of my boss’s attraction to me?!

    Do you mean that for a small organization, an employee’s leaving can be more comparably negatively consequential for the business? It seems a bit unlikely esp. in this case.

  19. Mark Says:

    Bijan,

    To be even clearer, I think that firing people for non-dicriminatory arbitrary reasons is not a good idea.

    It’s not a good idea to quit for arbitrary reasons, either. But it shouldn’t be illegal. Big difference.

    I don’t understand how the size of the organization affects the symmetry.

    Mainly for power reasons, as I said. Also because in a tiny business like a dentist’s, the employer can’t avoid lots of personal contact with employees.

    So you think that there is always symmetry in the positions of employer and employee, or never? (I say: rough symmetry for very small businesses, no symmetry for big businesses; obviously you disagree.)

  20. Kathryn Says:

    On, here’s one thing I’m unclear on that hasn’t come up yet in this discussion: if the judges reasoning that this wasn’t gender discrimination really did stem from the fact that he has several other female employees, does that mean the judges believe for something to be gender discrimination in the workplace, it must be applicable to all women? Or at least, all employeed women? I’m not sure why any one would think this. That’s what befuddles me so much about the decision.

  21. Katy Abramson Says:

    20– Right. It also seems incongruent with the already well established legal view that discrimination against pregnant persons *is* gender discrimination. The way around that, from the judges’ pov, would have been, it seems to me, to say that irresistible isn’t an attribute of a person in the way that being pregnant is, it is rather a relational attribute between two persons.
    But regardless of the reasoning, or legal niceties, the guy who did this is an asshole, there are clearly deep problems between he and his wife (enmeshment anyone?) and the appropriate solution is not to fire a very good employee, but for the creepy guy to take feminism 101, and the obviously troubled couple to get *adequate* counseling. Of course, much easier to blame it all on another woman who from all I can tell, did absolutely nothing inappropriate.

  22. Katy Abramson Says:

    “regardless of the reasoning”– i.e. legal reasoning.

  23. swallerstein Says:

    Mark:

    Even in a small business, there is an asymmetry between employer and employee in term of power relations, because the employer is the boss. Just try to order your employer around even in the “friendliest” small business and you’ll see very quickly who is in charge, who holds power.

    Generally, although not always, there is an asymmetry in economic terms, which makes it harder on the employee to lose their job than on the employer to lose an employee. Generally, although not always, the employer has more capital, more money, is from a higher social class and thus, is able to survive, say, a month without someone fulfilling a key function in their business, while generally, although not always, an employee, with less capital, with a smaller bank account if they have a bank account, may fall behind in rent or mortgage payments, etc., if they are jobless for a short time.

  24. Kathryn Says:

    Mark, when you say “I don’t see any significant difference between quitting because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension with your boss and firing your employee because you feel uncomfortable sexual tension,” would you think the same is true o,f say, the relationship between a department chair and a graduate student? Many departments are quite small, and I wouldn’t see anything wrong with a student attempting to transfer for personal reasons like this, but I don’t think we’d hold a department chair to those same standards. I can’t see a relevant difference between a chair and a small-business manager. (Imagining a department chair has this power.)

  25. Mark Says:

    Kathryn, hm, good point. You are obviously right about the prof/student situation.
    So, there is a matter of authority, as well as power. I agree.

  26. [...] I first started reading the articles and watching the videos about the Iowa City dentist who fired his assistant because of his emotions [...]


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