Can you fire a woman because she’s too attractive? We wouldn’t advise it, but a couple of employers have gotten away with it.
A dentist fired his assistant because he was irresistibly attracted to her. The assistant had worked at his office for ten years, and her work was fine. When she and the doctor began sending texts to each other—which were personal but not romantic—the doctor’s wife got jealous. He fired the assistant to save his marriage, and she sued him for gender discrimination.
The Iowa Supreme Court said it may not have been fair, but it wasn’t discrimination. They held that the decision was based on the dentist’s personal feelings about the assistant, rather than her gender alone. Besides, there weren’t any unwelcome advances, and there was no hostile work environment. As a result, there was no basis for finding that the firing was illegal.
Then there is the famous case of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a 33-year-old banker, who was fired because her figure and style of dress were too distracting to her coworkers. A colleague at Citibank told the Village Voice: “Men are kind of drawn to her. I’ve seen men turn into complete idiots around her. But it’s not her fault that they act this way, and it shouldn’t be her problem.”
Lorenzana pointed out that other coworkers wore heels and fitted business suits, some that were more revealing or “sexy,” but Citibank said their bodies were different. Her figure was just too distracting. Lorenzana’s case went to arbitration, and Citibank has stated that she did not receive any payment.
Now Lauren Elizabeth Odes has filed a gender and religious discrimination suit against her former employer, Native Intimates. After sending her home to change clothes, and directing her to wear a red bathrobe over her outfit, her employer advised her to tape down her breasts to make them appear smaller. She was fired when she went shopping for an outfit that would satisfy her boss.
It’s true that employers can set standards of dress. Allegedly, none of these employees was sexually harassed as the term is generally understood. It is also true that employees-at-will can be fired for any reason or no reason—including a subjective decision on the part of the boss. But it hasn’t escaped us that every one of these stories is about a woman. We have never found a case where a man is told he is too attractive to keep his job.
Women are placed in an impossible position. Can an employer set one dress code for plain women and another for pretty ones? Who decides where the line is between pretty and plain anyway?
These cases caused much debate in our office. Surprisingly, the women felt that the requirement to dress appropriately should not constitute gender discrimination. On the other hand, when one considers the details behind some of these claims, it seems inconceivable that the harassment and termination could be based on anything but gender. In the Lorenzana and particularly the Odes cases, you cannot create a set of facts that would expose a man to the same requirements.
We predict that very soon, one of these cases will end up with a judgment against the boss. The woman isn’t too sexy—the employer is just too biased.