Opinion

Op-Ed: Unintended consequences of civil rights legislation

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Civil Rights

Not many people can declare that they're irresistible and have the court documents to prove it. At least one person can, though, after Iowa's Supreme Court ruled Friday in favor of dentist James Knight. Knight claimed that he was justified in firing his longtime assistant Melissa Nelson because she was so "distracting."

Although neither sought a sexual relationship, Knight's wife grew concerned that the close personal relationship between Knight and Nelson constituted a threat to has marriage. She demanded that he terminate Nelson's employment.

Knight subsequently called Nelson into his office with an observer present and read a prepared statement informing her that their relationship was having a detrimental effect on his family and that they should not continue working together. He then gave her an envelope with one month's severance pay. When confronted by Nelson's husband about her termination, Knight told him nothing had happened but that he feared he might attempt to have an affair with her at some point in the future if he kept her on staff.

Nelson subsequently brought suit, alleging that Knight discriminated against her on the basis of sex. She did not sue for sexual harassment, though, and in fact, Knight and Nelson each noted that they had very high opinions of the other. Rather, Nelson alleged only that she would not have been fired if she were male.

The court ultimately found that the firing was not wrongful because gender was not a motivating factor in Knight's decision. While their relationship might not have been a threat had Nelson been male, it was the relationship, not her gender, that concerned Knight's wife and impelled the firing.

This case was relatively straightforward, but it leaves observers with an unpleasant taste. For starters, it perpetuates the idea that men have no agency -- that is, that they are not responsible for their actions. As with Adam and Eve, they maintain the right to claim "she tempted me."

Moreover, the decision points to serious defects in civil rights legislation. While this sort of legislation has the best of intentions and attempts to remedy clear abuses, it often comes with unintended consequences.

By establishing "protected classes" and affirming the "right" to a job, it makes certain job candidates less attractive as potential employees. If an employer can't part ways with an employee, hiring increases risk. Employers will thus be less likely to hire workers with fewer skills or short employment histories. In the words of Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, "If I can't fire you, I can't hire you."

Employers' right to hire or fire at will can create problems -- some people will unfairly discriminate -- but so too can legislation that interferes with that right. In fact, such laws can easily threaten even those as well-meaning as Knight and discourage the creation of employment opportunities.

Ultimately, the most efficient check against abuses is a dynamic and open market, where workers can seek out fair employers and use both new and traditional media to bring social pressure to bear on those who are unfair. It doesn't have quite the same ring, nor does it provide the comforting false promise of righting every wrong, but it's the best we've got.

Andrew Glidden is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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