I have never been an object of irresistible temptation to any of my colleagues. It wasn’t for want of trying in the early days, but it is comforting that this particular failure appears vindicated this week by an enchanting little case from Iowa, USA.
The widely-twittered decision in Knight –v- Nelson, perhaps something of a low point in American judicial history, concerned the owner of a dental practice, Mr Knight, whose unreciprocated attraction to his assistant, Ms Nelson, was so intense that he had to dismiss her “in order to save his marriage”, he said. Apparently Knight felt so conflicted between duty and desire that he consulted his “religious pastor” before taking the decision to dismiss. Whether the advice he got was to give Nelson her marching orders or just to get a grip on himself is unclear. Despite the dismissal coming after a series of chat-up lines so gauche and overt that they would cause a sharp intake of breath in a Watford nightclub, it was upheld as legitimate by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Commentators have suggested in a not remotely sneery way that “you would not find this same decision outside Iowa” and that there are “issues with the Court’s rationale”. However, stripping away the chat-up lines (since Nelson did not object to them), what would be the position in the UK if as employer you dismissed an employee to avoid a rift in your marriage?
Contrary to some of the more outraged comment on this case, it is not implicit in any suggestion that Knight’s marriage was at risk that Nelson (also married) would have been complicit in a sexual relationship with him. Apparently she was dismissed only after Mrs Knight discovered her husband’s infatuation, without any real suggestion that it had yet gone any further. It is tempting to conclude that the driver for the dismissal was therefore not something which Knight feared he might do, but what Mrs Knight feared he might do.
If your spouse made it (whether for well-founded reason or not) a question of “either he/she goes or I do”, how many individual employers would not dismiss? Obviously that ultimatum might be based on fear of a sexual liaison with the employee, but that is not necessarily the case. It could equally be the spouse’s fear (again, whether or not objectively justified) that the employee was a bad influence in some other respect. It would be similar to the situation where a major client took against a small company’s employee and demanded him off its account. Whether or not that demand has objective merit, the employer cannot realistically refuse. If no alternative position existed, what alternative would it have but to dismiss? Is one’s marriage not at least as important as one’s business?
Not a case I would necessarily want to fight, therefore, but surely a “some other substantial reason” argument would be within reach if the circumstances were right? In this particular case, Mrs Knight’s jitters did seem entirely justified by her husband’s grim line in drooling office banter, but even if it had all been in her mind and Nelson was guilty of nothing more than being attractive, I do not think that it could be said with certainty that her dismissal would necessarily have been unfair.