A recent Associated Press article resulted in dubious national attention for dentistry. A male Iowa dentist was sued for sexual discrimination in the firing of his female assistant due to an “irresistible attraction”. Although the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a summary judgment in favor of the dentist, the case merits further discussion. The assistant was not fired because of her gender but because she was viewed as a threat to the marriage of the dentist. All of the doctor’s staff were female, and the employee who was fired was replaced by a female. Discrimination cases are intended to aid a “protected class”, but the court reasoned this was a case of specific emotions tied to a specific relationship and not based solely on a person’s gender.
The assistant had worked at the office for ten and one half years and was considered a stellar worker. Both the doctor and assistant were happily married, with children. The 18 months prior to her termination had become increasingly problematic, culminating in a demand by the doctor’s wife that the assistant be terminated. The assistant claimed to love her job and reported the doctor generally treated her with respect, and she believed him to be a person of high integrity. She wore standard scrubs and denied dressing in a provocative manner. Both parties agree no physical relationship occurred. The fired woman’s attorney chose not to file a sexual harassment claim because there were insufficient grounds in spite of some inappropriate comments made by the doctor.
Unintentional attraction, whether mutual or one-sided, could easily occur from working closely together on a daily basis. A certain level of bonding and mutual respect occurs, as we often spend more time with our staff than with our spouses. Part of being an employer and a professional, however, is not acting upon impulses that may be inappropriate. This includes not violating boundaries that protect social structure.
Iowa, like Minnesota, is an “at will” state; meaning no cause is necessary to justify dismissal. Most, however, do not view marriage as an “at will” arrangement. We have all heard someone say, for instance, that “I didn’t mean for that to happen.” We all have daily interactions and social relationships with relatives, with family members, and so on, that do not pass beyond the scope of appropriateness. It is a conscious decision to follow clear lines of allowed social behavior. That same decision must be applied to our office environment. It is, at the core, a matter of clarity.
As employers, we are responsible to provide a non-hostile work environment. Staff should not be concerned that their daily duties or conversations at work are misconstrued. Both men and women have a responsibility to avoid using the influence or power of their gender to create an uncomfortable work situation, or as pressure to participate in a physical or emotional relationship. Boundaries may be very different from person to person, so employers need to err on the conservative side.
Dentists need to maintain a professional atmosphere and decorum in the office, one which includes re-directing conversation or humor that wanders into inappropriate areas. This atmosphere extends to our patients’ behaviors and conversations as well. Managing this aspect of dental practice is part of creating a presence, not unlike how we control an operating field or manage our pediatric patients’ behavior.
There was probably responsibility by both parties. In the doctor’s defense, he chose to honor his wife’s request and work to maintain his marriage. He consulted his pastor, turned to his faith, and admitted his failings. On the negative side, his assistant lost her job. Triggered by the media attention, the doctor has become the target of a concerted social media effort to boycott and undermine his practice. In a town of 25,000 in central Iowa, it must be devastating to his business and to his family.
This is also a black eye for dentistry. No profession appreciates this type of publicity. Let’s avoid giving people a reason to demean our business and profession. Choose to be an employer and family member everyone can respect and trust.
*Dr. Kurkowski is Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association Committee on Constitution, Bylaws, and Ethics. He is a general dentist in private practice in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org.