What To Do About Employee With Roller Coaster Behavior?

Question: I have a staff member (Lets call her Darla) who seems to be on a roller coaster of emotions. Lately it seems like she’s had an attitude when coming in to work. Specifically, I posted a reminder announcement on our bulletin board about making sure to do these set tasks for your shift. She took it personally and made this “ugh are you kidding me?” remark. Other staff members have been forgetting to carry out these tasks as well so i wasn’t singling out Darla. Some staff have been forgetting and I felt it’s not fair not to address it when others are doing the job just fine.

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What Should I Do About A False Allegation?

A question to Ask The Workplace Doctors
about being falsely accused at work. 

Question:
What do you do when a disgruntled employee makes a very serious false claim/lie about you to IR which in turn communicates to HR and EEC officer?

Response: I may not have all of the initials in your question translated correctly, but I think my suggestions will be helpful anyway.

Apparently you are a supervisor or manager and an employee complained to a your state’s Industrial Relations Board, about something you said or did, that he or she considered to be mistreatment, unfairness or unethical or biased behavior.

The IR Board reported the matter to your organization’s Human Resource section. I think an EEC officer would refer to ethics but might be equal employment. The bottom line is that an employee has made a serious allegation about you and you are worried about the outcome and want to know what to do about it.

1. One thing that will help you throughout this process is to keep your composure about the situation and do not talk about it to anyone other than the people responsible for investigating it or someone you have asked for assistance about it.

Don’t talk to other employees or even to fellow supervisors, except to say that you are sorry for the conflict and you are cooperating fully with the investigation. If you express anger or make negative comments about the employee or the process, those can be repeated and you will have an even more difficult time. Or, you will try to explain what actually took place and that can be repeated with a twist. If you have already talked about, just back-off now and don’t let others get you going again.

It may be that there will be no formal investigation, because HR has other facts to go on. But, my experience has been that if someone makes an untrue allegation, it is valuable to have it investigated thoroughly, to get the truth out in the open. It is one way to hold people accountable for their false accusations.

2. Having said that, I should also note that if you did, in fact, say or do something, even inadvertently, that would be a violation of policy or procedure or that appears to be problematic, you might as well acknowledge it, give your viewpoint about it, apologize, say that it won’t happen again and count on your good work history to assist you. It would have to be a very, very severe violation to merit dismissal, so probably even if you were in error, you would not receive a major sanction.

3. Whether there is no truth to any of the allegations or a bit of truth, but not as bad as alleged, just follow the instructions you receive from any organizational unit who is investigating the matter. If you are asked for a statement or interviewed, respond readily and courteously. Your attitude and behavior during the investigation will be noted and probably at least casually reported.

4. If the complaint is about something you allegedly said, write the actual dialogue as nearly as you can remember it, word for word. Next to the sentences spoken by each of you, write a note to describe the tone of voice or facial expression, if that would make a difference in how the sentence is interpreted. In that way, you will have the exact words in writing, without having to try to repeat them exactly the same way when you may be more nervous about it.

List every witness to the event and where they were standing, as a way to differentiate between those who only saw the aftermath, but didn’t hear your words or the words of the other person.

5. If the complaint is about something you did administratively or related to job directions, promotions, assignments, days off or other employment situations, document everything you did. Make copies of files or reports, take a photo of an area, as a way to show it more clearly to anyone who talks to you about it.

If the complaint involved some aspect of using machinery or being trained about it, use your phone to video the machine in operation. For example, a supervisor videoed a loading dock as a way to show a complaint board the kind of noise he was dealing with and why he yelled loudly at an employee. It was very effective and he was cleared of wrongdoing.

6. You can see by #3, #4 and #5, that I’m suggesting that you assist the person who is going to investigate this matter, if there is going to be an investigation. If you are a supervisor, demonstrate to them that you are not angry at them or the system, because you understand their role and yours.

7. Talk to your manager, if that is comfortable for you to do, given the work environment or culture of the organization, and ask for his suggestions. He may have experience with the same thing and can talk to you about what to expect next.

8. Focus on your own good work. If there is some aspect of the situation that you would do differently, if you had it to do over again, put those better habits into practice now. Quite often, in some work environments more than others, the culture becomes one of “We get the work done and sometimes we have to talk tough to do it.” Or, “I have a job to do and I can’t always make everyone happy.” Those may be true statements, but they are often used to excuse rudeness or unnecessarily riding roughshod over employee. Or, they are used to excuse a lack of compassion or a lack of fairness.

If you are already doing an excellent job of supervision, just keep at it. The employee who complained about you may still feel anger toward you or he may wish he hadn’t made the complaint. Either way, you are still responsible for his well-being. Treat him with respect and civility and show him and others that you can move forward and past this.

Best wishes to you as this unfolds. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what develops.

Tina Rowe
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Is it Illegal For A Coworker to Discover And Disclose My Salary?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an employee disclosing salaries of coworkers. 

Question: A coworker of mine logged onto our Office Manager’s computer and logged on (she has access to the code) to our program that manages employee’s salaries. She then proceeded to tell other employees my salary. Is this illegal? My boss does know and says there will be consequences, yet we have not seen them yet.

Response: There are no laws about revealing salaries, but in most companies it is a rule violation that would—and should—merit serious sanctions, up to dismissal. You don’t indicate the size of your organization, but generally, the larger the company, the more severe such a violation is considered to be. read more

Distracted by An Assistant’s Chatter

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about non-work talk:

I have a new assistant that starts the day with idle chitchat and every chance she gets tells me senseless info about her family and other employee’s. I don’t have time for the distraction or care about this stuff. May I repeat she says the same things over and over also, help?
She has a kind heart but just finds the need to talk to me and everyone about idle chitchat.
She got the job with non of the qualifications we really need for the job, so I think this is her way of avoiding the truth. read more

How to Talk to an Employee about Using Profanity?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors, from a supervisor,
about how to discuss an employee’s use of profanity.

Question:
I need to know some questions to ask an employee about using profanity, in a meeting discussing her performance.

Response:

It’s stressful to be facing a counseling session with an employee, when you know you will be critiquing his or her behavior or performance. Often managers lose sleep and feel worried, much more than the employee does! Your brief question doesn’t explain the circumstances leading up to this meeting—and those are important for you to consider as you decide how to approach it.

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Employee Texts Us After Hours and Is Effusively Complimentary–Especially to My Husband.

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What to do about an employee
who is excessive in her flattery and texting? 

Question:
My husband and I own a small business with four employees. We live in a very small town and we run the business out of our home. Our secretary continues to text both my husband and myself after hours with subjects totally unrelated to work. She will constantly give compliments to my spouse and myself about what a great boss he is, how he is the “rock” for the team. She will also provide nutritional supplements for his “stress”, etc. We have attempted to discuss these issues with her and she is great for a time, but then falls into the same habit. I don’t want to lose a productive employee, but this invading our time after hours is getting old quickly. Any suggestions – before we end this work relationship?

Answer:
Dr. Gordon, the founding Workplace Doctor, thinks your employee may be trying to be like an Office Wife to your husband, making herself seem to be necessary for his well-being and showing him how important she is to him. You probably have insights into that. Does it seem she is more interested in communicating with your husband than with you—and only includes you to make it not appear so obvious? Or, are you certain she is encroaching on both of you equally?

If she is trying to establish a relationship with your husband—even if it is not a romantic one—he should take the lead in stopping her texts and extra attention, although you will want to be part of the effort as well. More about that in moment. However, it isn’t fair to her for your husband to encourage her to her face, then complain about her behind her back. So, make sure he is as solid in his efforts as you are.

If both of you have talked to the employee before and she continues to text after hours and be overly effusive about compliments during working times, perhaps she is a person who is needy emotionally and having a away-from-work relationship makes her feel important. I am concerned that if you are put in a position where you have to fire her, she will continue to call or to be a nuisance or even a threat in some other way.

Or, your employee may think you three are friends or almost like family and her over-the-top communication is her normal interaction with friends. In the last few years I have noticed a lot of what I refer to as Facebook Fawning. On Facebook, some people, almost always women, compliment other people effusively as a way to show they are generous, kind and loving—and to get compliments in return. I just now reviewed a few of them with which I’m familiar and almost gagged. Essentially, “WOW!!! Julie, you’re so awesome!! That photo is great! What a smile!! You’re such an inspiration! Love you, girlfriend!!!!”

Or, someone will post a cryptic note, “Having a tough day today”. And twenty or thirty women write back, “Praying for you, girl!” “Hang in there, you’re a great person!” “We love you, don’t let others get you down!” Etc. etc. etc. Then the first person posts, “I don’t know what I did to deserve such wonderful friends. You made my day!” Then the friends post back, “Just you being you is enough.” “I’m always here for you!” Etc. etc. etc. etc.

Or this one, a real one, posted Monday: “I read one of my favorite blogs about how to have a tidier desk. HA! By the time I lug in two dozen of my famous cinnamon rolls, set up the break room and get my coworkers full of rolls and coffee, while dealing with Monday morning emails, my desk is already a disaster! Oh well, I guess I’ll never be blog-worthy.” To which all her friends wrote gushing notes about what a great friend she is and she shouldn’t worry about some stupid blog-writer. None of the commenters were her coworkers, who probably would be happy to do without the hoopla of her “famous” cinnamon rolls.

So, it may be that your secretary over-communicates with many people and is encouraged to do so by their responses—and thinks you enjoy hearing from her, even if you have hinted otherwise. She may also think the other excessive things she does are appreciated, especially if she has never been told to stop.

1. The first step is to put distance between the two roles of boss and secretary. In a small town with a small business, it is likely that she knows everything that is going on in your business and maybe even your family. Try to reduce that closeness. You and your husband should not share personal information with her or let her into your life to such an extent that she feels part ownership. Even casual comments about home and family can give some people the idea that they are being purposely included. It may sound elitist, but the truth is that employers rarely pick employees to be their close friends and confidantes—and when they do, they invariably regret it at some point.

2. You and your husband should never accept anything the employee gives you—such as the supplements or food or anything else. Share everything with the entire staff or tell her that you cannot use the item and she should return it and get her money back. Or, give her the money and tell her to keep the product. It’s a shame to have to do it that way, but it’s reality and you’ll be better off in the long run.

A manager told me about his former administrative assistant, who brought various items to him—favorite magazines, a deck of cards from his favorite casino, food items or candy, etc. One day when he finally told her she needed to get to work on time, the first thing she said was, “I can’t believe, after the friendship we’ve had, that you’re treating me like a lowly servant and you’re the king of the castle.” He never thought of her as a friend and had never exchanged gifts with her, but she obviously read more into it than he did. So, if you and your husband don’t want to be close friends with the company secretary, don’t let her feel so close. You can be friendly and courteous, without being close.

3. Reduce the use of the cell phone for calls or text messages to or from your secretary. Many workplaces use text messages in place of face to face communication or email, because it is more immediate. Unfortunately, the high level of communication increases messages—with many of them being unnecessary. Start noticing how that happens with everyone. If you send an email, they reply, then you reply, then they reply briefly, then you reply with one line, then they reply to say goodbye, then finally the communication is over. Send one text, asking a question, and it takes five or six before the conversation is done.

In addition, for many people there is an emotionally addictive aspect to text messaging. It seems a bit intimate to get a text message—like a secret chat, even though it is about business. Even the alert sounds different than a plain old phone call. As a young woman with a crush on her boss told me, “When we text back and forth, it’s like quick kisses.” Oh my!

So, step one is to reduce or eliminate text messages, even during working hours. If she texts you about work during working hours, respond with a phone call or email, not a text message. Your husband should never text her. Tell him to forward texts to you and you can respond for him about work matters. Just say he’s busy and asked you to handle it. Or, he can email her back, instead of texting. He is probably going to have to do more than you to reduce the feeling of closeness she seems to have.

3. Tell her to stop texting either of you after work hours. I don’t think trying to have a discussion to appeal to her good judgment will help at this point, because she has shown she doesn’t use good judgment. A reasonable person does not text her bosses after hours. Keep that in mind—other employers are not getting texts or calls after hours, except in dire emergencies.

You already have a history of hinting or suggesting or talking to her about not contacting you after hours, so it won’t be news to her that you don’t like it. You don’t need to feel guilty or extreme to be more blunt. The added benefit is that you will never need to feel that you weren’t clear enough.

Here are two options for handling the next text. You can soften or strengthen the language, based on how firm you have been in the past:

Option One: Don’t respond when she texts. The next morning your husband (preferably) or you, can say something like, “Good morning Barb. We noticed that you texted last night, but as we’ve talked about before, we don’t like to read or respond to texts after work hours. What was it about?” After she explains it and you respond, say, “That could have waited until work hours, so I’m glad we didn’t read it when we got it. Barb, please don’t send us texts after hours. I mean it, please don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how to be more clear than that. Don’t do it. OK?”

Don’t go into some long explanation about why or the exceptions or anything else, just say you don’t want to get texts, calls or emails after hours. And say you didn’t read it, so she won’t have the satisfaction of thinking that you did.

Option Two: Your husband (preferably) or you can text back at the time, without referring to her specific text, “Barb, work can wait until work hours. No texts or calls after hours. Thanks!”

If she continues to do it, it will be an indicator that she can’t control herself and you will have to stop it by firing her. That will be a tough situation, but she can’t say it was unexpected.

4. Through all of this, if the employee is now productive, you want to keep the productivity if you are going to keep her as an employee. Put the focus on the most productive work for right now and be appropriately but not excessively appreciative. It sounds terrible to advise to not encourage extra work, but for a while at least, your employee should just do daily, productive work, without the feeling that she is responsible for making sure the business succeeds or that her role is to be a cheerleader.

Make sure you are commending other employees, so that no one is the Super Star. Consider expanding your business network more, so you are interacting with new people and talking about others in positive ways.

The bottom line is that you may have to put some effort into getting things back to boss-employee relationships, but it can be done and you can still have a small-business, appropriately friendly feel.

Best wishes to you with this interesting situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let me know how it works out and what was ultimately successful.

Tina Rowe
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Called a Racist on Facebook–Worried It Will Hurt My Business

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being labeled racist by an employee

I own a small restaurant with 5 servers and 2 cooks.  I have been doing an excellent level of business with no issues.  I do have a set of rules and have discussed how to prepare/cut/serve the desserts but the servers often cut pieces extra large.  That is what happened.  She did and I asked her to follow the portion size.  She then cut the pieces in half and then it was too small.  Any time I have need to provide instruction or training to this one server, it results in a flare up. She feels I treat her differently because she is black.  I do the exact same thing with all servers.

I live in a small rural town and the posting she has made on FB have been the talk. She called me a racist; rated the restaurant poor and stated I am a racist.  The post has been commented on, shared and posted other places.  The newspaper called me for a comment but I said no comment.  It is just wrong and very one-sided.

How do you write a clear response to a false accusation of being a racist by an employee who walked out?

There is no basis, but she put it on Facebook and it is very aggressive, hateful, and damaging to my business. It has been gaining momentum with folks sharing and commenting. I need to respond but do not want to say the wrong things. She walked out. which is now going on 5 times – I had to correct her on the way a dessert was handled and she just blew up. I am in the food service business.

The young lady has been living in my home for the past 4 months as well as dating my son for approximately 9 months. I am the owner of the business, white and female. My son is white and works for my restaurant. The young lady did work for my restaurant, but this is about the 5th time she walked out and said she was done but asked if she could come back. The young lady is black. Please help

Signed Told FB I’m Racist

Dear Told FB I’m Racist:

Congratulations. You must be doing almost everything right to manage a home-owned restaurant! That is a tremendous accomplishment, and it’s amazing to be able to say you have “an excellent level of business with no issues.” However, of late managing your workplace has been complicated by a disgruntled minority employee who has flared up and left five times. And recently she posted on Facebook accusations of racism and an unfavorable evaluation of your restaurant.

A desire to respond to that employee’s accusation you are racist and have a “poor restaurant” is natural. You feel this accusation is untrue and criticism of your restaurant is unjust. Because they were posted on Facebook, you feel that has drawn unfavorable attention that could hurt business in your small rural town. It might. But also might it bring to your defense others who know you and patronize your restaurant? For those who know the quality of your restaurant, isn’t the FB posting rather likely to bring criticism of the employee?

To obtain a second opinion, I submitted your question and the additional information you submitted to Danica Rice, an HR specialist who has worked with several different companies. Her remarks merit consideration. First, her advice concerning you posting something on Facebook:

“With regard to a response about the message she has put on social media there have been cases of individuals that have lost jobs behind doing things like this. Again putting policies in place to ensure that people don’t defame the company name is important and ensuring that they understand the ramifications if it takes place is important. I know that I can post whatever I want on social media but I am mindful when it comes to venting and/or ranting about work related things. Even though I do not have coworkers on my page I never refer to someone that I may work with so a rule of thumb for me is just don’t post it. I acknowledge not everyone is like that. Sometimes not responding is just as powerful as responding so I challenge and caution her to be careful prior to putting up a response. I am not comfortable with providing a sample response because I am not sure what types of comments have been made so I wouldn’t want to mislead her.”

Should you post on Facebook a reply to this employee’s accusation? If so what would that be? My answer to this question is that it is best to not respond. I predict other of your customers will come to your defense especially if she persists with more postings. If she doesn’t persist, the whole matter will fade. Whereas, if you respond, even nondefensively, the issue will get legs.

I imagine if a local newspaper wants to pursue the matter, some reporter will patronize your restaurant unannounced and then ask for an interview. You can disclose the situation fully as you have done with us, or you can respond, “I want our food and service to stand for itself. I prefer not to comment on personnel matters. Thank you for visiting our restaurant. You are always welcome as is anyone in our community.”

Now to related questions about where do you go from here as to allowing this young woman to return to work and regarding her living in your home. Danica’s advice about the matter of this woman working in your restaurant begins with:

“There is a simple and easy fix that forces me to pose the following questions to the business owner: Does she have an employee handbook that defines reasons for corrective action and/or termination? If yes, simply adhere to the handbook (as long as the previous accounts have been documented she has covered herself) If no, has she at least documented the previous accounts?

I actually can think of a variety of additional questions, but the thing she needs to truly assess is how does she want her business to run? Can it function properly with employees just up and quitting? Regardless of ethnic background, would she tolerate this behavior from anyone else? Why has she been allowing an employee to live with her (that is a conflict of interest right there)? Why does she feel it’s okay to keep allowing someone who cannot take constructive criticism back into her business? Business is not about favoritism (regardless if it is family owned, small, or large). There are policies and procedures that can be put in place to protect against behaviors and it sounds like this business owner needs to take the necessary steps to ensure that she doesn’t run into this situation moving forward.

Documentation is going to be key and policies/procedures in place is next, then simply implement. This may not be what she wants to hear because it may demonstrate where she has been deficient but life is all about learning from mistakes made.”

Then after receiving your additional information, Ms. Rice wrote: This is horrible. My next question would be: is this server the only African American worker that she has? Again, has she documented everything that has transpired? When I asked about policies and procedures I wasn’t referring to the position itself. I was asking about handbook policies and procedures or guidelines. It sounds like she may not though and that could be to her detriment even though she is a small business owner. This employee is a bad seed for sure and shouldn’t be permitted to work for her any longer, but if you as owner continue to condone the behavior by letting her come back after her performance, then you really have no cause for complaints.”

From Ms. Rice’s Human Resource perspective, a workplace needs policies regarding a number of matters; in your small restaurant that would entail cause and procedure for discipline leading to firing and also policy regarding no discrimination as to race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, age, etc. The story is that most small restaurants do not have a policy book, but rather they make policy when a situation arises, such as with this woman angrily quitting and posting this accusation and her mean remarks. Probably, now you will put in writing policies for the future and will provide that information to your employees. This doesn’t have to be done immediately. I think it is wise for employees to be involved in creating and collaboratively reviewing policies. You may want to gradually involve them.

I don’t know how you handled the previous times this young woman walked out, but I expect they caused you to talk with her about her performance and attitude. Apparently, you thought it was good for you to allow her to return to work, perhaps because you felt pressured by the fact of son dating her and that you permitted her to live in your home.

I must state we give communication, not legal advice. Another guest respondent with a long history working with Human Resources, Dean Kearney, after reading your question, sent more ominous advice: “This is very bad and this person needs to consult a libel attorney immediately. Don’t try to do anything herself and make sure she tells the attorney the entire truth not just bits and pieces but everything. Otherwise if she lies about one thing the attorney will basically tank her case.”

Probably, Mr. Kearney’s concern will worry you, and it might be overstated. However, he suggests it would be wise to consult an attorney. I think if you do, it is best to do so quietly. Do not to mention the word attorney to anyone, even your son. An attorney should provide a private, free consultation, to help you determine if there is a need for one. You probably won’t need one unless this woman is malicious and seeks to hurt you.

We are not family counselors but it is obvious that the facts of this individual living with you and dating your son are related to the accusation of racist with which she labeled you. Your son probably is pressured by this woman he’s dating to take her side against you. To say the least, he is getting a real live picture of what it will be like if his dating evolves into something more permanent.

Also I sent a copy of your question to another alumnus from our School of Communication Studies because he is a successful owner/manager of restaurants. In his response, he stressed that “In this day and age, there is no room for racial ignorance….in  any and all shapes and forms.  People are people no matter what.” And he confirmed our advice that you should consult an attorney and emphasized you should have “policies in the workplace….that is, have a

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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

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