‘Don’t fire me because I’m too hot,” I told my boss. “That won’t be the reason,” he replied.
I tried to hide my relief. Never saw my movie star looks and smouldering sexuality as a workplace liability before, but this Iowa case has changed things.
Iowa’s supreme court has just ruled that it was OK for a dentist to fire his assistant of 10 years for no other reason than he found her an “irresistible attraction.”
To repeat: She hadn’t done anything wrong.
She hadn’t pilfered the petty cash. Hadn’t huffed the laughing gas.
Hadn’t even flirted with the boss who, being 20 years her senior, she saw as something of a father figure.
He, on the other hand, found himself having urges, said he was distracted when the 32-year-old woman wore tight clothing. (Note to self: get rid of shrunken flood pants lest editor be driven mad with desire. He’s straight, but best not to take chances.)
When the boss’s wife discovered he was exchanging text messages with his assistant, she urged him to fire the woman before friendship flamed into affair. After consulting with their pastor, the couple decided that for the sake of their relationship, the smart move would be to pay the assistant a month’s severance and send her packing.
Some people might argue that the onus should have been on the employer to restrain himself, but hey, maybe there’s something about the world of spit sinks and rubber dams that saddles its inhabitants with ineluctable impulses. When we watched Horrible Bosses, in which Jennifer Aniston played a sexually aggressive dentist who preys on a male assistant, we didn’t know it was a documentary.
Funnily enough, the Iowa assistant didn’t see the logic behind her dismissal. She sued for discrimination — and lost.
Even when the case was appealed, the all-male Iowa supreme court (state motto: don’t bump your pretty little head on that glass ceiling, honey) ruled that the firing, while unfair, wasn’t based on sexual discrimination but rather, the dentist’s desire to save his marriage (Iowa must have a Families First policy, too). The learned judges stopped short of actually awarding him a medal or naming a high school in his honour.
Predictably, this story has rocketed around the world.
This follows a rule that applies to all court stories: the more outrageous the decision, the bigger the headline. (This also applies to stories about scientific studies. The less likely the conclusion — red wine is good for you, exercise shortens your life, alcohol improves judgment — the more ink they get.)
The thing is, the Iowa court got a lot of support from legal experts. The complainant couldn’t claim sexual harassment because, ironically, the boss fired her before doing anything untoward. Nor was she discriminated against as a result of her race, religion or other status protected by law. Being “too hot” isn’t on the list.
On the contrary, conventional wisdom holds that beauty is a workplace advantage.
Last year, you might recall, Texas economics professor Daniel S. Hamermesh even argued that since unattractive people make less money than good-looking ones, ugliness should be treated as a disability worthy of legal protection.
The author of a book called Beauty Pays (don’t look at his dustjacket photo; he’s hideous), Hamermesh quantified his argument with a series of studies, including one showing that workers deemed to be in the bottom one-seventh in looks earn 10 to 15 per cent less than those in the top third.
Really, though, it’s not always easy for those of us who are, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.” (Why, just last week I had to fend off an unwanted advance couched in water-cooler code: “Jack, can you hit deadline for once?” “Slow down, sweetheart,” I replied, “I’m a married man.”)
Now, at least in Iowa, we can be canned as a precaution, fired for firing up the boss even when we didn’t know we were holding the matches. It’s like your neighbour making you get rid of your car because he might be tempted to steal it. A law that allows that is a bad law.
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” I said in a smoky Rula Lenska voice.
“That ain’t it,” came the reply.
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