Employee Who Wanted Scent-Free Workplace Is Violating the Policy

Question: 

I have an employee (Employee A) who complained that another employee (Employee B) was wearing an offending perfume and was causing her headaches. Employee A went to the Dr. and came back with a note that said we are to provide her a fragrance free environment.

We have instructed others not to wear anything scented and they have complied, EXCEPT Employee A – the employee requesting the fragrance free. She wears a scent that is obvious and lingers. She has denied wearing anything, but then said she just uses a scented hand cream. She was reminded that her Dr. note included her complying as well as all others.

Employee A continues to wear the fragrance and others are now complaining about her wearing it…She now says that she wears it to mask the perfume of Employee B whom quite honestly, myself nor my HR person have never smelled any hint of fragrance on. We have even gone so far as to get very close to her and never smell any scents on Employee B.

Short of moving Employee A’s desk to another location (which is what she’s been angling for for 9 months), are there any other suggestions? She has been told not to wear it and claims she doesn’t but it’s obvious she is. Now she’s feeling like she is the only one that is being “picked on”. Help!

Answer: 
The reason so many places are scent-free (reasonably scent-free, because completely scent-free is not possible.): The chemicals in fragrances or the scents of other things (including some lovely flowers or plants) can irritate lungs, sinuses, nasal passages and throats, cause breathing difficulties or complete blockage of the nose and throat and even cause heart palpitations and nausea in some individuals. So, fragrance in a closed space can be a life-threatening problem.

In most cases, fragrance sensitivity is not life-threatening nor is it a disability under ADA guidelines. However, it causes so many uncomfortable feelings—especially headaches, nasal drip, sore throat, etc.—that work is disrupted and the quality of work life goes down. On this site we have many questions and responses about strong perfumes and other fragrances. You might find it useful to look at those for some talking points.

An employee’s claim of having a fragrance sensitivity can also be used as a weapon to create conflict or to achieve a personal goal (like being moved in an office, getting a separate cubicle or gaining privileges.) A manager or supervisor can find it challenging to know how to make the workplace breathable for all employees without creating undue hardship for the business and without adding to an already contentious situation.

As a preface to my comments, I’ll remind you of something you probably already know: After this fragrance issue is resolved in one way or another, another issue may come up with the employee who has complained. You will want to carefully avoid having it appear that the way you handle future issues is influenced by her complaint about fragrances now.

Be careful how you talk and write about this matter and especially do not discuss Employee A’s situation with other employees in a way that is negative toward her. If you already have done so, use future conversations to express your commitment to doing the right thing for everyone in the office. You will be much better off to keep your actions focused on the whole-office rather than limiting your response to this one employee.

This link will provide you with some good information. http://www.obermayer.com/blog/must-employers-provide-a-fragrance-free-workplace/

If you approach this issue as if this employee is the main one you’re making adjustments for, it puts her in a separate category and could not only make her be viewed as having a disability, it could require you to do even more than you are now doing, to the point of being disruptive to work. For example, some businesses with employees who are considered disabled by fragrance allergies have had to accommodate for that by giving time off or adjusting work schedules if cleaning, painting, repairs etc. are going to be done anywhere in the building or by flexing time to avoid fragrances from cleaning or carpet shampooing. For someone whose health and well-being depends upon it, those are important accommodations, but they are not necessary for someone who is only sensitive to some scents but not all added fragrances.

Consider doing as most businesses do and say that for the comfort of all employees, vendors and visitors, the office and any spaces controlled by your business will be as reasonably scent-free as possible. Then, define what that means: Employees will not wear toiletries or use products that have a noticeable fragrance, nor will fragranced items such as room deodorizers, candles, etc., be used in the workspace. Supervisors and managers will work with all employees to ensure they are not inadvertently using a fragrance. Supervisors and managers will also discuss concerns of individuals or the group if it appears a personal fragrance or scent-added item is being used, whether or not it is creating discomfort at the time.

This next link gives a sample policy, if you don’t already have one. Or you can adjust yours to fit some of this.

http://action.lung.org/site/DocServer/fragrance-free-workplace.pdf

The problem with that sample is that it sticks to the most obvious sources of fragrances so employees may not be reminded of other powerful and problematic sources of fragrance. For example, an employee may use a strong fabric softener or strong antiperspirant and think that because they’re not wearing perfume they’re OK. The truth is that fabric softener and antiperspirant bother many scent-sensitive people more than the obvious fragrances. That’s why employees should be able to point out problems with a fragrance, even if the supervisor doesn’t immediately smell it or think it would be a problem.

I once stood next to a manager who later said he wasn’t smelling anything on an employee who others said wore so much fragrance it gave them headaches. I pointed out that the employee reeked of deodorant or antiperspirant and it made my sinuses hurt. The manager said, “Oh, that. Well, yeah, but it’s not cologne.” Another manager told me the only thing he could smell on an employee was sunscreen, which she wore because she walked to and from work. But some brands of sunscreen have a strong odor that causes headaches for many people. The manager didn’t think it was a problem because the policy didn’t mention it specifically. One more example was in a childcare facility where several employees complained about the strong fabric softener used on washables. When the owner switched to unscented items, the complaints—and headaches and throat irritation–went away. If the adults felt the affects you can bet the children did too.

You don’t want to produce a list of no-no products, because it can appear ridiculous and also can put ideas in someone’s head about something to complain about next. But, you can ensure that the description covers more than colognes or similar products. Hairspray is always a problem to deal with because it has a scent and not all brands have a scent-free version. That is why saying, “products with a noticeable fragrance in normal use” is usually effective.

By the way, a major offender nowadays is the strong-smelling anti-bacterial product many people use. Consider finding something with a mild fragrance and putting it in a common area, so no one will have to bring their own.

Now, to your situation:

1. You have already made your scent-free policy, but you can always rewrite it, adjust it or simply recommit to it. I suggest tweaking it a bit to ensure it reads clearly and incorporates everything that can be problematic, plus some wording to allow for other items. Start over with it, especially here at Christmas when there are so many scented items that can be overwhelming in small spaces.

2. Be honest about what you are doing. You can say that everyone is aware there has been conflict about the use of fragrances and the goal of the organization is to not only reduce that conflict but to improve the quality of life in the workplace. One way to do that is to review policies and procedures and make sure they are reflecting what is best for the business and for the employees. As a result the scent free or fragrance-free policy has been adjusted somewhat and can better provide guidance for everyone.

3. It is also a good idea to give employees at least one or two ideas for how they can handle odors that are not controllable, such as electrical equipment, food odors from break rooms, fragrances that others may not detect but that for some reason are noticeable to an individual employee. One thing all employees can do is to bring in a battery operated fan to place on their desks. They are not expensive and do not have to involve cords or a lot of desk space. Even waving a handmade fan can be helpful. Another thing is for the employee to use a saline spray to moisten their nasal passages and make it less likely a fragrance will have an effect on them. You may find other ideas online but those are the most obvious.

4. As your Employee A has mentioned, you could also move an employee’s assigned location. However, if that would disrupt work for some reason (the flow of work, the needs of the employee whose space is being taken, etc.) it wouldn’t be reasonable to do it for a complaint about a scent that only one person can notice. You may want to consider having the employee ask another employee if they would like to swap. (Let them work it out on their own, to avoid having it seem like an order from you.) You can’t move everyone who at some point says something about their work area is bothersome to them, so you don’t want to do it without a very good plan or reason.

5. Before you hand out the adjusted policy or send it to everyone by email, do a check of the workplace when no one is present. Have a couple of supervisors or managers walk through the office, standing at each location, to identify any scents that may be present that do not involve toiletries. Have them send you or the main manager an email stating that when no one is present there are no noticeable fragrances. (Or what they did to remove the item if there was a fragrance.) When I once set up a scent-free (reasonably scent-free anyway) office I had extra cleaning done one evening, to ensure all the surfaces were cleaned, so we could start fresh.

6. Unless you think it is necessary, don’t call Employee A in separately, just be sure that she, like other employees, including Employee B, have received a copy of the policy. If you talk to her separately it will add to her feelings or her supposed feelings, that she is being targeted. Just implement the policy and move on. Then, if someone reports a fragrance problem, whether with her or someone else you can deal with it on a case by case basis.

7. If Employee A uses a noticeable fragrance again, make the next time the first time for documentation purposes. If someone says something or if you notice a fragrance, keep it low key and say, “Lisa, we have our new policy now that says employees can’t use items that have a noticeable fragrance, but there’s a noticeable fragrance in your work area. (Or “on you”.) We’re talked about it before so I won’t use work time for that now. Just take a break for the next fifteen minutes and do what it takes to clear out that fragrance, OK?”

Then, when she argues, be a broken record: “I don’t know what it is either, but it’s the same odor as the hand lotion I’ve noticed in the past. So, take a break and do what it takes to get rid of that fragrance.” “There isn’t a fragrance on Cheryl or in her work space, it’s you and your work space, so take fifteen minutes and do what it takes to get rid of that fragrance.” “There is scent-free hand lotion in the break room, so you can use that if your hands are dry. The main thing is to take a break for the next fifteen minutes and clear out the fragrance I’m noticing.”

It may be that a low key approach will work, at least temporarily. After the fifteen minutes, if Lisa complies, based on you walking to her work area and checking, follow it up with an email, “I’m glad you got that fragrance cleared out. Thank you for complying with our policy.”

8. The next time—and hopefully there won’t be one—you can be more stern:

“Lisa, I’m noticing the fragrance again. What are you going to do to make it go away in the next few minutes so you and others can focus on work?” Keep it brief and to the point. Don’t memorize a speech, just say it and wait. That kind of tough talk is needed when an employee is being purposeful in wrong behavior. It also helps to keep the attention on getting back to work.

Don’t get involved any more than necessary in what the fragrance is, just say it has to go away so she and others can get back to work. Be a broken record again. “We have a policy and you are violating it with your behavior. What are you going to do to make that fragrance go away in the next few minutes so you and others can get back to work?” “OK Lisa, you’ve established that you violated the policy because you think Cheryl is wearing a fragrance. I’m asking you, what are you going to do to make the fragrance on you or in your work area go away in the next few minutes, so you and others can get back to work?”

If this goes on for more than one or two times, just say, “Lisa, be clear about this. I’m directing you to get rid of the fragrance in your workspace and on yourself in the next few minutes and get back to work. There isn’t going to be any further discussion about it until you do that.” Then, use the documentation method your company uses for a situation that hasn’t risen to a formal disciplinary action but still needs a record. The next time can involve a sanction, as approved by your company. Dismissal would be appropriate at that point, because the employee’s behavior is insubordinate.

Keep in mind that all of this is reasonable and you are not being too picky or punitive.

9. That brings us to what you can do if she still insists Employee B is wearing a fragrance that bothers her. A reasonable check of the work space is enough for a supervisor to reasonably verify that there is no noticeable odor. Just be sure you’re not overlooking something because it seems normal to you. (Like the examples above.) Have Employee B leave her work area and check for a fragrance without her being there. Then, talk to her and be honest that you’re trying to find out what could be causing a fragrance. If there isn’t one, there isn’t one. Thank her for being cooperative, but don’t apologize about the need to investigate.

I once smelled someone’s hands and sure enough, she was wearing a lavender hand lotion that I hadn’t noticed but that was more obvious when she was near other employees. When I said, with disappointment, that I had asked her about it and she denied using a fragrance, she went into an explanation that essential oils were needed for her arthritis and it wasn’t fair that she had to have pain because someone was hyper-sensitive to fragrances. I wanted to scream at that moment!

10. This final step involves the other employees. Don’t let yourself be the instrument of their vengeance. A scent-free workplace is not unusual, so you’re not doing something for Employee A that is unreasonable or unique. If employees talk about Employee A, ostracize her, bully her or are obvious about their displeasure, they can catapult you into a civil action, in which Employee A claims you allowed employees to treat her differently and in a hostile manner. Not only do you not want that for your business, it’s not good business to have an unhappy workplace—and it certainly isn’t a good thing to add to your stress that way!

When one of them tries to complain to you, stay breezy about it. “Oh yeah, Lisa’s situation kind of pushed us forward a bit, but we needed to do this anyway. Very few offices nowadays allow obvious fragrances, so we’re just getting with the times.”

You can even be more blatant: “I can tell you’re upset with Lisa, but I don’t want that to be obvious to her or others—and I don’t want you to talk about her behind her back. One day you may have a similar situation, so show some empathy.”

You’ve probably talked to several people about this, but I hope one of them is your HR section or the person who would be involved in an HR action. Make sure you’re following company procedures, then just stay reasonable. You don’t have to go far out to accommodate the preferences of this employee, but you shouldn’t refuse to do what you can, just because she is irritating. Make it easy on yourself and on everyone else by staying calm about it and approaching it as if it is a doable situation. It is!

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors