Are You Too Sexy For Work?

You can be fired for being too attractive working in a bank, a law firm, and now, a dental office.

man staring at naked woman

Too sexy? Too bad, because that means you’re fired.

That’s what happened to Melissa Nelson who, after working as a dental assistant for 10 years, was fired by her boss for being what he (creepily) referred to as 'irresistible'.

On Friday, an all-male Supreme Court ruled in favor of the decision made by a lower state court that a male employer could fire his female employee if he deemed her to be an 'irresistible attraction' at work. The court affirmed that Nelson’s employer, Dr. James Knight, was well within his legal rights to do so.


So was there a secret workplace affair going on? Nope. In fact, according to court documents, the two never had any kind of romantic relationship. However, almost two years before she was fired, Dr. Knight started finding himself distracted by her tight-fitted clothing and even told her that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” as the justices wrote in court documents.

It was also around this time that the two began exchanging mostly boring text messages about work matters, their kids’ after-school activities and … orgasms?

Not exactly your typical office memo: Nelson recalled received a text from her boss asking her how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson never responded. Regardless, that was when Dr. Knight’s wife found out about the texting and demanded that Nelson be canned.


On Jan. 4, 2010 she was let go with one month’s severance pay. For her, the news came as a shock.

“I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson said, who still denies that her work wear was inappropriate. “I think it is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the work force.”

“We do think the Iowa Supreme Court got it completely right,” Stuart Cochrane, an attorney for Dr. Knight said. “Our position has always been Mrs. Nelson was never terminated because of her gender, she was terminated because of concerns her behavior was not appropriate in the workplace. She’s an attractive lady. Dr. Knight found her behavior and dress to be inappropriate.”

"Although people act for a variety of reasons, it is very common for women to be targeted for discrimination because of their sexual attractiveness or supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. That is discrimination based on sex,” Nelson’s attorney Paige Fiedler said in a statement to ABC News. “Nearly every woman in Iowa understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves." 


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“Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the employer's wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?” wrote Justice Edward M. Mansfield, on behalf of the high court.

Apparently, that answer is yes.

And because of that, I think those seven male justices (plus, Dr. Knight’s wife) all need a reminder that men and women alike assume responsibility over their own sexuality. So why should Melissa Nelson be fired from her job for an affair she never had with her boss?


When her husband tried to reason with Dr. Knight, the dentist told him that he “feared he would have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”

First of all, I think it’s pretty presumptuous on the dentist’s part to assume that his assistant would want to have an affair just as much as he did. Allegedly, the boss was the one instigating these more-than-friendly text messages.

Second of all, why are his apparently uncontrollable sexual urges suddenly her problem? Shouldn’t he be able to control himself?

And forget about trying to answer the question of what’s too sexy for the office. Like, should we go through our closets and throw out our pencil skirts, stockings, and high heels for fear of tempting our bosses? Doesn’t this just mean that we as females will be held responsible for the sexual wants of our male bosses? And if so, should this go both ways? I sure don’t want to see my boss come to work wearing shrunken t-shirts n à la Simon Cowell and leopard tights. Isn’t that 'distracting'?


Does this mean that my fitted Ann Taylor business suit will be out of the picture? What about make-up? Or my hair? Call me crazy, but doesn’t this sound like sexual harassment on his part? Gender discrimination? A hostile work environment? Something illegal? This sounds to me like a way for an employer to terminate an employee without just cause. Why should Nelson be blamed for her boss’ marital problems?

These judges are sending the message that men cannot be held responsible for their own sexual desires and it’s up to women to somehow be sensitive to that in their work wear. And isn’t this just playing into a patriarchal workplace culture?

Unless this is a scene straight out of Horrible Bosses. Then, we’ll talk.


What do you think about this case? Have you ever experienced gender discrimination at work?