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Employee fired for being too attractive – Sexual discrimination at work?

27 December 2012 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The meaning of sexual discrimination at work took a new turn recently when in a high profile case in the USA, a female dental assistant was fired by her boss for being ‘too attractive’. 
 
An all-male supreme court in Iowa ruled that it was OK for Melissa Nelson’s boss to fire her. Her boss maintained that she was sacked not because of her gender but because of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in the work place. 
 
It was also alleged that her boss was being distracted by the clothes she wore, leading him to send her home because she could have been a threat to his marriage. 
 
Ethics and morals 
 
There are too many could-have-beens and would-have-beens to start with. Many men at work have affairs with women who do not wear revealing clothes and who are not even connected to the work place. Women who wear revealing clothes to work are not always looking to be involved and for attention. 
In this case, the man wanted to play it safe by avoiding future interactions with an employee who had otherwise been an exemplary worker for the last ten years.
 
Although legally Melissa Nelson’s boss was cleared for firing her, it brings into play other moral and ethical questions. Melissa brought home a considerable amount of money that went into the upkeep of her family of two children. 
 
She is happily married and is on record to say she never felt attracted towards her boss in anyway – even though the two have also started exchanging text messages that were not sexual in nature. 
 
Was firing her the right decision just because her boss felt threatened by the clothes she wore – could a compromise not be reached so that she could still keep her job? 
 
After all, we live in recession times and finding another job is going to be tough – media reports have said that Melissa is now employed as a waitress and feels uncertain about her future. 
 
After working for her boss for ten years, it sure feels like Melissa deserved a better option rather than merely being fired. Could she have been firstly advised to alter her dress code and then fired if she did not comply?  
 
What are the moral issues at work here for her boss who claims he did what he did to save his marriage? Does this mean that if he had to pass a provocatively dressed lady on his way to work every day, he would get tempted to be involved with her sexually unless she is removed from where she is?
 
Modern risque outfits   
 
We have seen some elements of the kind of discrimination alleged here at work. People have been sacked for all the wrong reasons sometimes, craftily disguised as the right ones. 
 
Sexual preferences, gender, cross dressing and other grey areas have always existed; yet, no one can be sacked for such things in a perfect world. 
 
Yet, we do not live in a perfect world and Melissa Nelson had to go home because she has chosen to dress the way she did to office. Her exceptional work record of a decade did not matter in this case – neither did the fact that what her boss was alleging had not taken place as yet.
 
People at the work place get involved in various unacceptable practices for a variety of reasons. Some get caught in stealing, others get hooked on abusive substances and yet, others have been engaged in many other acts that threaten the very existence of a business. 
 
Firing is often the first line of defense in such instances but firing in the case of provocative clothes seems a little out of line, even for an ageing dentist who, in my opinion, should have curbed his appetite for attractive women dressed in outfits deemed too risque for office. 
 
After all, sexy clothing is pushed from all angles in today’s consumer driven society. It seems perfectly acceptable for such clothing to be worn to many places in society including the office. You often see it on America’s very popular TV shows.
 
Dress code for office 
 
While not being a clear cut case, this opens up a whole new can of worms for the issue of sexual discrimination at the work place. 
 
On one hand, it does acknowledge that women must practice a proper dress code for the office. There is a place and a time for fashion, especially fashion that involves revealing outfits. The office certainly isn’t one of them.
 
What are the implications such a case throw at us here in this part of the world? There are industries such as creative arts and advertising where people do wear different kinds of clothes and follow a different path in dressing for the office. Can someone be discriminated against, whether male or female, merely because he or she chose to dress differently? Now that such a case has indeed gone on record, will others follow?
 
For women, who have been battling gender discrimination in various forms at the work place, this seems like a step backwards. 
 
Will others cite this and try to follow the same route? And for the record, what is inappropriate for one may not be so for another, so where do you really draw the line? 
 
These questions will remain until another case comes along. We have come a long way indeed yet setbacks of this nature should not ideally deter women who have fought hard for recognition and achievement instead of the clothes they wear or the sexual aspects their very presence seems to bring out in the men.
 
We all know how painful and out of place sexist comments can be. But perhaps it is OK for the men to make those comments while it is not OK for women to dress the part. 
 
(Nayomini, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional can be contacted at nayominiweerasooriya@gmail.com)
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