Most research shows that above-average beauty does well in the workplace. One study, in particular, found that employees considered good-looking snagged a 5% earning bonus compared to more plain workers.
But now, it looks like being too pretty could also be a major vulnerability.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court confirmed that being fired on the grounds of one’s attractiveness is, in fact, legal.
The court had been asked to reconsider a previous ruling, concerning the termination of a female employee.
In 2010, James Knight, a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa, fired his assistant, saying she was too attractive and thus a threat to his marriage. He was worried he would soon be tempted to have an affair—and so was his wife. (Whether his employee would also consent to this affair, however, did not appear to factor into his decision.)
After receiving the pink slip, the dental hygienist, Melissa Nelson, filed a civil rights complaint and brought action against Knight, contending that she would not have been terminated had she been a man.
Nelson had been employed by Knight for more than 10 years, but in recent months had been reprimanded for wearing clothing that the dentist found too distracting. Knight had also sent Nelson suggestive text messages, although she did not respond.
What Does This Mean for the Workplace?
“The question we must answer is…whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction,” a member of the all-male court wrote in the previous ruling. This—though it may appear unfair—was ruled to not fall under the state’s discrimination laws.
Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, expressed disappointment at the decision, saying that it was a step backward for workplace equality.
“Women already have to balance on the very fine line of being respected, professional and well-liked in the workplace without having their perceived charm or attractiveness garner unwanted sexual advances, harassment and discrimination,” she said in a statement.
A New York Times op-ed on Tuesday, agreed, calling it a case of reverse-lookism, and suggested that reaching the correct “professional beauty quotient” could now be the new workplace predicament. “We might call it the Goldilocks dilemma. Like the porridge in that famous fable, you can’t be too cold. But as Ms. Nelson found out, you can’t be too hot, either,” Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, wrote. “The glass ceiling is reinforced by a looking glass.”