Editor's opinion on the dentist who fired a dental assistant for being "irresistible"

Dec. 24, 2012
It seems that Melissa Nelson did everything she was supposed to do as a dental assistant. Her biggest fault? She might prove just too darn "irresistible" to Dr. James Knight.

Sorry, but you're just too darn pretty. You have to go now.

That's basically what happened at a dental practice in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

It seems that Melissa Nelson did everything she was supposed to do as a dental assistant. Her biggest fault? She might prove just too darn "irresistible" to Dr. James Knight.

"Might" being the key word. No really. That's why she was terminated. She was pretty and she "might" be trouble for Dr. Knight's marriage down the road.

From the article on CNN.com, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here.

The case concerns her client's employment as a dental assistant. Nelson worked for James Knight in 1999 and stayed for more than 10 years at the Fort Dodge business.

Toward the end of her employment, Knight complained to Nelson her clothing was tight and "distracting," the decision read. She denied her clothes were inappropriate.

At one point, Knight told Nelson that "if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing," the decision read.

At another point, in response to an alleged comment Nelson made about the infrequency of her sex life, Knight responded: [T]hat's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."

During the last six months of Nelson's employment, Nelson and Knight, both married with children, started sending text messages to each other outside of work. Neither objected to the texting.

Knight's wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about those messages in late 2009 and demanded he fire Nelson.

In early 2010, he did just that. In the presence of a pastor, Knight told Nelson she had become a "detriment" to his family and that for the sakes of both their families, they should no longer work together, the decision read. Knight gave Nelson one month's severance.

Was she wrongly terminated? That's what the Iowa Supreme Court recently debated, and eventually sided with Dr. Knight.

"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," Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote for the all-male high court.

Was the termination fair? It certainly doesn't seem to be, but Nelson's termination didn't constitute unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the decision read, siding with a lower court.

Now let's face it ... inappropriate relationships happen all of the time in dental practices around the country. Dentists and assistants. Dentists and hygienists. Dentists and office managers. Dentists and other dentists. Dentists and sales reps. Oh, the list could go on ... and on ... and on. It's not right, but it happens. And, I would wager that many working relationships (and marriages for that matter) have ended because of what happened in the supply closet.

So what lessons can we learn from this oddity in Iowa? Here are my seven thoughts...

1. Never should a dentist utter the word "bulging" to his assistant. I don't care if you're talking about a disc in your back, that's just not a term that needs to come up in conversation.
2. Speaking of bulging, don't tell someone not to look somewhere. That is like me telling you not to think about striped elephants. So what just popped into your head? Uh-huh.
3. If you have to pull in a pastor on a conference, it's probably not a good thing.
4. In most cases, the dental practice is made up of a small group of people. It's not a large corporation. You're going to see the same people every day. It's unavoidable. If something is going on in the practice between a couple of team members, it's going to affect the whole practice because everyone will know. Simply put, if you value the camaraderie in the practice, or the practice at all, don't start a relationship.
5. Speaking of the close-knit dental team, be careful of the words that you speak around your coworkers. Sure you may know the other person very well, but when things starting getting "suggestive," that's a whole new arena.
6. Assistants (and other team members) take note of this ... the dentist is the owner of the practice (in many situations). If a relationship begins in the office and then goes sour, the dentist isn't going to go anywhere. It's his (or her) practice. Knowing that, guess who is going to have to leave?
7. If your spouse discovers text messages that make him or her uncomfortable, you probably shouldn't have been texting in the first place. If you have to keep text messages from your spouse, you probably shouldn't have been texting in the first place.

Whatever happens in this case in Iowa, we know this ... a dental practice will never be the same. And it isn't just the team that is affected. How damaging is something like this in the eyes of the patient? Would you keep going to this practice if the dentist was the main story on CNN? I don't think I would.

Yes, this situation in Iowa is not normal, but how many clinically sound practices have been affected by a dentist and team member's indiscretions and affairs of the heart? There are no solid stats on this (trust me, I looked) but I would guess the number would surprise us all.

What's the overriding theme of this editorial? Do the right thing, whether you're one of dentistry's beautiful people or not. Many, many folks are counting on you.

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