I’ve read several posts regarding perfumes and fragrances in the workplace. As far as I can tell, adopting a (reasonably) fragrance free environment is at the company’s discretion.
Our boss has asked everyone to stop with the perfumes and other sprays as people have problems with this. I get really bad headaches-migraines and so do other people in our house. This is still happening and my boss is not doing anything about it. I have let her know this is still happening and that I have a migraine due to this and need to leave work for this reason. I do not feel like I should have to use my sick time or lose pay for this reason. Do I have any rights?
Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a very unpleasant matter:
Well, recently found out that a co-worker had been storing and smearing their faeces in our toilet. We found the faeces all over the basin of the sink. When asked what had happened, everyone was angered and shocked, including the guilty party.
We looked into what we could do to prevent this from happening as we have had minor cases of this in previous months. The next day the smell wasn’t going away. So my boss removed the tiles from around the sink, and behind there was lots of faeces, some in tissue some not. Other rubbish was stored behind there as well, such as wrappers and ladies feminine napkins etc…
We held an emergency staff meeting to sort out what was going on as we were all so shocked, disgusted and disturbed by it all. A member of staff owned up to it before the meeting took place. The next day she handed in her notice of leaving. It went into immediate effect (to prevent any other form of charges). The owner of the business offered to get the person help and said they wouldn’t feel comfortable passing on a reference until the person had gotten help.
We have recently found out that this person has got another job in the same field (working with small children), and we, her previous colleagues, are quite concerned about by this in case she is mentally unwell. Please advise how to best to deal with this? She has not sought a reference from this workplace and still holds a dbs. We just want to do right by everybody. Thanks
Knowing what is best for your former coworker and those with whom she works is problematic. I’ll refer to this individual as Rose so as not to have to refer to her as this person. Rose admitted her very unpleasant behavior and resigned. Since then, you’ve learned Rose has a job “the same field (working with small children)”.
You wrote us because this is not the kind of coworker problem normally encountered and it raises a number of issues:
- an employer’s responsibility and liability in providing a reference or warning to a future employer,
- how should such an incident be investigated and handled for one responsible—particularly for one mentally not well?
- employee privacy and secrecy
- communication about a taboo topic during the investigation and afterward.
There might be more issues to consider, but let’s look at these:
E employer responsibility. We don’t provide legal advice; however, it probably would be wise to seek such from an attorney familiar with employer/labor laws. Such advice will help answer questions such as: should your employer contact Rose’s current employer and if so what should be disclosed about her? Will your employer be held guilty of breaking Rose’s privacy by disclosing the feces-smearing/hiding that resulted in her resignation? Will your employer be liable if they don’t disclose Rose’s behavior should her problem continue or show up in a different way? An attorney probably will recommend that your employer carefully and accurately inform Rose’s new employer. Hopefully, she has sought psychological help and, if she has not already done so, can forthrightly confront her past behavior and promise it will not happen again. Her new employer might consider Rose wrong if she had concealed her previous mental disability. My associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rose, says, “I think they should get legal advice about the way to notify the current childcare place, so as to avoid liability concerns from the employed person or the facility. (I hope they documented the situation with photos.)” Tina’s advice leads to the next issue.
Investigated and handled. Because on one occasion the toilet facility had been much soiled, investigating why was a primary concern for your staff. All of you wanted to learn who could have done this and why. Often we learn too slowly how to investigate messy matters and therefore you probably now you wish that photos were taken, as Tina recommends. Your boss found the persisting odor came from “faeces, some in tissue some not” around the sink and that “rubbish was stored behind there as well, such as wrappers and ladies feminine napkins.” I’m using the language you presented to commend you for using accurate terminology rather than to hide it euphemistically.
You say there were “minor cases of this in previous months.” This is to say that the problem had gone on for some months. Apparently no one sensed that Rose was having a mental problem. Now that it has led to her confession and resignation, you have reason to ask if the staff’s relationship with Rose had been insensitive. Was she part of your group or in some way marginalized? What if she had not confessed and/or resigned? Have your thought about that? If Rose was found to blame, should your employer have made reasonable requirement for psychological help for her and enabled her to continue employment? These are practical and ethical questions.
Mentally not well. We are rightly cautious about labeling anyone as mentally ill. U.S. law makes job interview inquires out of bounds for anything but topics relevant to the ability to perform tasks required by the job. I mention this to raise the question that every employee has to the more general responsibility of caring for property and civility of working relationships. A staff member’s physical and mental well-being is a private matter until and unless it adversely affects one’s performance and /or working relationships. We don’t normally discuss co-worker’ health unless it becomes obvious that something is wrong. In Rose’s case nothing was obvious.
Rose’s case surfaces other concerns such as the uncomfortable disclosure by a job candidate of mental illness. Such a disclosure has been shown results in a lower chance of employment than disclosure of a physical disability. Disclosure has its risks, yet an argument for disclosure of one’s own mental health is that you wouldn’t want to work for an employer who would not be understanding and supportive. Concealment of mental illness carries with it the worry that discovery of its secrecy distracts from getting the help needed. Also secrecy activates obsessive preoccupation and intrusive thoughts about the “secret.” Rose’s case should interest your staff in how we frame mental wellness and trouble.
Communication about a taboo topic and other topics.
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!
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.
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.
Ask the Workplace Doctors
A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What can I do about my body odor?
Some coworkers think I smell bad although they only say it indirectly, like speed walking when passing my desk, or not looking in my direction, or covering their noses when walking by. I have asked my dentist and primary physician if I smell bad. They both say no. I also visited an ENT specialist for the same problem and he also said no. I’m little bit concerned because coworkers’ reactions are the same at different companies. This is quite embarrassing and I feel helpless.
I brush my teeth twice a day and floss daily and use mouthwash, as well as deodorant, but still people react to me like I smell really bad. I have even reached out to coworker and begged him to be honest and then asked him if I smell bad. He said no.
What should I do and how can someone help me? It’s so frustrating that others blame you for something you have no control over. And yes, I would like to fix it if it’s truly an issue.
Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns with us. There are several things for you to consider about the question of whether or not you have body odor—and what you should do about it.
1. Are you sure you are interpreting the behaviors of others correctly? You imply that no one has ever said you smell badly, you only get that idea from things they do. But, is there a chance you are so sensitive about the issue that you are exaggerating their actions in your mind? Doesn’t it seem odd that medical professionals who would have no reason to lie, say they don’t notice bad odors about you and a co-worker said he didn’t think you smelled badly and no manager or supervisor has told you to do something about your odor? Maybe you don’t have an odor problem! If you did, your friends and family would notice and react, salespeople and people in close situations would show their displeasure. Someone, sometime, would have told you something about your odor and what it smells like.
2. Is there a chance it is your work area that smells badly? Many people eat breakfast and lunch and have snacks where everyone can smell the various items they bring in—and they don’t realize how repulsive those smells are to the person who is not eating. Then, the odors tend to cling on them and they smell badly when they are in other areas as well.
Especially be careful that there is no fragranced item in your work area that people think smells too strongly and that you don’t wear a fragrance that can be detected by others. People at work react as strongly to that as they do to dirty odors.
Could it be there is something you store in your workspace or a jacket or other item hanging in your work area and it smells badly?
Just in case, use soapy water or a mild-smelling cleaner to clean your desk and around your computer or other work items. Keep the trash can emptied. Don’t eat at your desk.
3. Other possibilities:
*Sometimes people have an intestinal gas and don’t realize how the odor floats into the air and nauseates everyone else.
*Some people slip their shoes on and off under their desks and don’t realize how foot odor smells up and area.
*Some people are clean but their shoes or clothes carry odors from the environment where they live and smells badly. For example, if they have a dog or walk through an area on their way to work where there is manure or chemical odors.
*Sometimes work clothes, especially suit jackets or shirts, become sweaty smelling under the arms and it’s not noticeable until body heat makes it smell. Are your clothes fresh every day? Could it be there is odor stuck in the fabric and you’re not noticing it?
*Are you using a hair dressing, a body cream a cologne or even a deodorant that has a strong smell? Hair lotions or ointments can smell very badly and keep hair from getting clean.
*Even though you’re using deodorant, are you bathing or showering every day, cleaning in personal areas very well and wearing clean clothes daily?
*Sometimes odors are related to what a person has eaten or ingested in vitamins, herbs or medications. Is there a food or supplement you only take on work days or a lotion or ointment you use that might be a problem in a close environment?
*Is the food you’re eating making your breath or hands or clothing smell? If you only eat it when you’re at work, others wouldn’t notice it away from work.
As you can see, before you assume the odor is ON you, consider that it might be AROUND you or IN you. But don’t assume that is the exact cause of your coworker’s behavior. It might be some of the other things I mentioned. It’s easy to become “nose-blind” or desensitized to odors or fragrances, which is why the goal for most of us is to have no odors or fragrances at all on ourselves.
4. Whether or not you have an odor, the behavior of your coworkers stinks! What they are doing is mean and unhelpful and sounds more like grade-school bullying than the actions of professionals. If they have a concern they should either tell you directly or go to their supervisor (and yours) about it.
5. The person you should be talking to about this is your supervisor or manager. It is his or her job to work with employees to solve all kinds of problems, including this one. Rather than have a verbal conversation, which may be embarrassing for you and the manager and may make it difficult for you manager to tell you the truth, consider sending an email.
Here is a sample of what you might write:
I am asking for your help with a concern I have. I’ve had the feeling for a long time that people think I smell badly. I notice that Paul and Phil turn their heads or act like they’re holding their noses when they walk past my work area. I often feel that people walk by my area fast, as though they’re trying to get away from me. Last week Maria kept backing away from me as though she thought I smelled badly. It’s very embarrassing! I’ve asked doctors and friends, as well as asking Shawn about it and they all said they don’t notice an odor problem about me.
Could you please tell me honestly if you or others notice an odor about me and what it is, so I can do what I can to fix the problem? I need to know if it’s all over my body or just an underarm odor, or if it’s my breath or my clothes or something else that smells badly. I’ve even wondered if there is something about my work area that smells unpleasant to people and that’s why they act the way they do. If there isn’t an odor I would like to know what it is the others are trying to avoid when they’re near me. I wish they would just talk to me instead of doing those things, but since they won’t, I am hoping you will be honest with me about it.
I want to do a good job and I don’t want my behavior or odor or appearance to cause people to dislike me, so I would really appreciate your help. I am available to talk to you about this at any time.
A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: How can I get my boss to improve her hygiene?
My boss is the director of a mid-sized company and is second only to the managing director. She has recently taken over in our busy shop where we sell food and interact a lot with customers. Her hair smells like it hasn’t been washed for at least 2 weeks and it looks absolutely awful too, all straggly and greasy like it’s never brushed. Her clothes are always tatty and creased and covered in animal hair. It’s just not appropriate and it’s awful to work around as the area behind the counter is quite narrow. As a part-time employee, I have no idea how to tackle this problem and no other employee wants to help me. What can I do?
Hello, thank you for sharing your workplace concern with us. You wonder how to tell a high level boss that her hair is greasy looking and smelling, that her clothes have dog hair all over them and that she generally looks unclean and untidy. That is a very tough situation, as you have found from the response of your coworkers. It is possible to tell a boss something like that, but it probably would not be accepted well and might result in negative reactions about your employment, especially since you are a part-time worker.
For example, you could say, “Oh, Jan, you’ve got dog hairs or something all over you, let me see if I can get those off.” But, that would probably embarrass her or anger her and she would feel you were trying to make her look bad. I don’t think there is any way you could be more direct than that, without putting your job on the line.
I recall what an old-time police sergeant once told me: “At some point, everyone looks in a mirror and say ‘I don’t mind presenting myself this way today.’” If your boss has looked that way more than once or twice or if she looks that way most of the time, she knows how she looks and she doesn’t care. If she is an educated person who has been working for a few years, she knows about the importance of good hygiene and also knows that not washing her hair for several days is bound to result in it looking badly—but she doesn’t care. If she has a dog, she realizes that a common complaint is that dog hair gets all over clothes and is unsightly and the dog smell clings—but again, she doesn’t care.
You say you work in a busy shop where food is sold and you and others interact a lot with customers. Usually I don’t like the idea of writing anonymous notes, but this is one time when it is probably the only option. Consider writing an anonymous complaint letter, as though you are a customer. Send it to “Manager” or “Owner” or the actual name of the manager or owner or Managing Director, at your business. You would write it using only the information a customer would have…maybe the Director’s general description, a name on a name tag or something else to describe her.
To whom it may concern,
I was in the store this week and noticed an employee who looked very unclean and even had a smell I noticed across the counter. She seemed to be in her mid-40’s, with greasy looking brown hair and shabby looking clothes compared to everyone else. I was surprised at how she looked, since I’ve shopped at your store in the past and never have noticed anyone with that problem. In fact, everyone else looked just as they should. I hope you’ll do something about it, because it really did make me think twice about buying anything, when I saw how untidy and unclean that one employee looked. It made me wonder if she was touching food and how clean she was otherwise!
A concerned customer
Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about restroom odors:
I work in a very small office, 6 people total. My desk is literally 10 feet away from the restroom. Several of my co-workers use this restroom daily to dump. They each sit in there, sometimes as long as 40 minutes, doing their business. When they come out, the smell is horrendous. There is a can of air freshener in the restroom, but only one person will use it. When she does, she uses so much it hurts to breathe. I’ve only worked here a few months, but I’m at my wits end. I can’t complain because my female boss is one of the worst offenders. It’s the craziest situation I’ve ever experienced. What is wrong with people??? What can I do?
It Hurts to Breathe
Dear It Hurts to Breathe:
You are not alone. Other employees have sent questions that smell like yours. There is no quick fix, but you can do some things so you don’t have to hate to breathe. You have eliminated getting help from your boss who is supposed to make working conditions suitable for you and others in your office. Therefore, my first advice is don’t rule out her help. It’s her job and she gets paid to handle difficult situations.
My Associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, is busy training and therefore I am responding to your question, but I am sending along her suggestions and then copying one of her detailed response to a similar question to yours. She suggests actions you might try:
“She may not be able to control the restroom smell, but perhaps she can put a fan on her desk to redirect the air or spray a light mist of something, to counteract the bad odors. She may also want to invest in the spray item called Poo-Pouri, to leave in the bathroom.
“I don’t think it would be considered inappropriate for her to talk to the boss and ask if she can move her desk location or ask the boss to help her find a way to avoid the unpleasantness. Even though many people may think their stuff doesn’t smell badly, almost everyone would be empathetic to the challenges of working by the bathroom. Unless she has a poor working relationship with all those people, it seems likely that asking for some assistance would be understood and efforts would be made to reduce the fumes.”
Here I will add that seeking help from your boss and coworkers should not be ruled out. Although you are new to the job, you were hired because they needed you. Perhaps you were assigned a desk close to the restroom because no one else wants to work near the restroom odors. Use of a fan might help your coworkers and boss to realize that. But it might take a more assertive approach such as private confrontation with your boss or a staff meeting in which you engage the whole office staff in dealing with the problem.
Almost everyone has to learn how to deal with disagreeable working conditions and that requires courage and assertiveness. Assertiveness weds a positive attitude and an interpersonal communication process. This would entail not pussyfooting about your discomfort experienced daily when coworkers leave the restroom. Then it would mean either screaming distress or firmly asking for help and seriously dealing with a very common problem of bad odors. Asking for help and asking for adult-problem solving of your work group should not be ruled out. There may be solutions we can’t know from here, such as the total physical layout of your workplace. Might there be restrooms in other parts of your building your staff can use, especially for what you refer to as dumping? Might your staff request the advice of your employers about making a restroom farther from your work group?
Do any of these thoughts make sense? Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is my signature way of suggesting that your problem is not yours alone and you don’t have to nor can you solve it solo.–William Gordern
Now what follow is a copy just one of the many answers Tina Lewis Rowe has given to a difficult odor problem. It should serve as a model of how you might approach your situation:
Co-Worker With Body Odor
January 8, 2011 Tina Lewis Rowe Perfumes & Odors
We work in a sewing factory and our sewing machines are side by side. We have a girl working in the middle of the row, between 9 of us and she has bad b.o. everyday. Two different ladies have talked to the supervisor about her and also went to H.R. with no results. Today one of the ladies went to the supervisor again and he said that the factory director said that he had people go through that area and they didn’t smell anything and he didn’t want to hear any more about it. We were not to discuss this anymore.
This girl is really smelly. She comes in first thing in the morning smelling bad!
Dear What Next?:
Hygiene issues are difficult for most people to deal with directly. Supervisors and managers will do almost anything to avoid talking to an employee and so will coworkers–which is why they hope supervisors will say something.
It IS an awkward subject, but it is so distracting and so obnoxious a problem that it cannot be ignored.
I don’t think you will all be fired if you make an effort to deal with this in a good way. One thing is for sure, either you do something or you have to settle for doing nothing while suffering with the odor. Here are some options for you to consider:
1. Think about the totality of the situation to decide what you’re actually dealing with. *What is the employee like otherwise? Is she congenial or unpleasant? Will she likely feel embarrassed and want to do something or become angry or be uncaring? *Is her odor solely caused by underarm odor or is it all over (hair, breath, feet, other parts of her body?) *While you are working does she seem self-conscious about her appearance and odor or does she seem to act as though everything is fine? *You say she comes to work smelling badly. Does she seem to be wearing the same clothes repeatedly or are even her apparently clean and fresh clothes smelly? *Does she have the same degree of odor every day or does it seem worse some times than others (or better)? *Is the odor that of sweat or is it something else? *Can you think of some reason why she might have an odor? (Is she from a culture where that is not so negative? Does she live in a situation where hygiene might be difficult to maintain? Does she have a mental or emotional problem? *Could she have a medical problem that creates the odor? Usually, even if there is a medical reason for an odor, it can be improved with medical attention. However, if it is medical she may not be able to correct it completely. One indicator it might be medical is if it is constant, the same level, the same odor and the rest of her appears very clean. Very few women who have grown up in this culture want to smell sweaty or to have any odor at all, so it’s worthwhile to consider why she would do so day after day. *How long has this been going on? Has she ever smelled OK, from her very first day? If she smelled OK at some time, that is at least an indicator that it is possible for her to do so. *Does she have friends otherwise? Or, is it she is disliked by most and this is simply another reason to dislike her?
Also consider why your supervisor and HR have done nothing. Could it be they sense some hidden agenda? If coworkers have been rude to the employee or pushed her out for other reasons, there may be a feeling that the odor issue is just an excuse for other behavior. Or, if the employees and the supervisor have had bad relationships in the past he or she may not feel very concerned about your complaint.
2. Consider what has been done about it so far and what her reactions have been. If she has worked there for several months or years and no one has talked to her about it directly, she probably isn’t aware it’s a problem. However, if snide remarks have been made or other “hints” have been given, she may only think people don’t like her but not associate it with a hygiene issue. On the other hand, if someone has talked to her directly and she has said she isn’t going to change, that is a much more difficult issue. I don’t get the impression that has happened though.
3. The above steps are just for you to have an understanding of what you’re dealing with. The next steps are the ones that count.
The first option is to talk to her directly. Tough to do, but not so difficult if you approach it the easiest way.
*Unless there seems to be a real need to mention the months of problems, just deal with the day you talk to her as though it is the first time. If she mentions other times you can say you have noticed it before but never as much as that day. By dealing with just one day you don’t have to have “a talk” with her, you only have to mention it as though it’s something you just noticed. Sure, she may figure you’ve minded before, but she won’t know for sure. Even if she knows complaints have been made, you still can deal with one day at a time. *Consider being prepared by having a can of antiperspirant spray with you. A trial size would go in your purse and you can loan it to her as though you always keep it handy. (But, unlike a stick or roll-on, she won’t think it has touched your skin already.) Also have a trial size or small size of low-fragrance body talc from the grocery store to loan her. (Like baby powder.) Both the spray and the talc will not only be helpful under her arms but will also help the fabric odor that is usually the worse problem. You might want to put in one or two wet-wipes or hand wipes. Keep these supplies in a small zip lock plastic bag in your purse, drawer or locker.
*Be ready to do something when you get to work, before work gets started for the day if possible. Yes, it will be tough. But, once you’ve done it you’ll at least have taken a positive step. You don’t have to say a long speech or memorize some perfect approach, just limit it to one or two sentences. Anyone can say one or two sentences. Say, “Jan, can I talk to you a moment?” Step to the side so others can’t hear. Then say something basic, quick and to the point. You’ll be nervous, but remember it will be over with very quickly.
When I talk to someone about the issue of body odor, I usually use a confidential tone as though it’s just between them and me. I also try to give people a way to not be humiliated the first time I talk to them. After that, if they don’t improve, I’m much more direct. But, I like to start with allowing them a way to save face a bit. So, I refer to “nervous sweat” (for women) or “a guy sweat thing” (for men). Or, I’ll blame it on something: The fabric they’re wearing, the fact that they had to walk to and from the bus stop, how warm it is outside or inside, that they may have worked out early and are still sweating or anything else that seems to fit.
“I don’t know whether it’s that polyester blouse or what, but there’s a sweaty odor on it.” “I don’t know if you had to walk fast from the bus stop today but something has stirred up the sweat. I can smell it when you walk by. Don’t you hate it when that happens? But, you sure can’t work that way.” Sometimes I have said something like, “I don’t know what the heck is causing it, but there’s a really sweaty odor around you today. I knew you’d rather I tell you so you can do something about it, than not say anything” I once said, “Wow, Shelly, something got your sweat going today! You need to wash up. And, you’ll have to see what you can do about your sweater too.”
When I’ve used the baggy of items, I’ve said something with a confidential tone, like, “Hey, Lisa, I thought you’d want to know that you seem to have a bit of a nervous sweat thing this morning. I have some spray deodorant and other stuff with me all the time just in case of a problem like that, so take these and you can use them right away.”
Or, to be really direct, “Oh my! Karen! There’s a sweaty smell on that blouse or on you! I’ve got stuff with me you can use, but you’ll sure need to use it before you work close to people.”
The most direct way, “Rita, I have to tell you, you’re smelling sweaty. You need to suds under your arms in the bathroom and do something to make your shirt smell better.” 4. After you say those one or two sentences, in a courteous co-worker to co-worker tone, she’ll either apologize and try to make it better or she won’t. If she comes in the next day smelling badly, say it again. Or have one of the other coworkers say something. “Maria, PLEASE do something to make sure you don’t smell sweaty when you’re at work. It’s really bad and I don’t think you want people complaining about it.” Most people, once they are told about odor one day, try to make sure it doesn’t happen on other days.
5. That brings you to what will you do if those things don’t help. Your manager has said to not talk about it. However, you mention that you have an HR section. Consider writing your complaint one more time. You might want to write this first, instead of talking to the coworker.
Say that the odor is distracting and intolerable. You can say, “Mr. Smith has told us nothing will be done and that we shouldn’t discuss it any more, but we can’t let this continue and would like to talk to someone higher in the company if that is needed.”
Address the statement that someone walked by and didn’t smell anything: “Mr. Smith says someone came by but didn’t smell anything. We sit next to Lisa for eight hours a day and we have to smell it every day. To find out for sure, someone needs to spend some time close to her or just take the word of employees who have worked here for a long time. We wouldn’t make up something like this. We can’t keep working while we’re trying to avoid smelling body odor. Please help us by talking to Lisa and telling her she has to wear clean clothes, use antiperspirant and not smell sweaty.”
6. I believe employees need to show the courage to deal with issues like this, even though it is very uncomfortable. But, I also think managers and supervisors need to be the ones to talk to the employee. This is no different than an employee coming to work late or whistling loudly while they’re working. It is a very common policy that employees should take measures to be and smell clean. If there is any kind of handbook or employee manual that talks about hygiene, use that as a reason for action to be taken. Your manager wants you to stop talking about it so he or she doesn’t have to do anything about it. But, if you put your complaint in writing at least you have shown that you’re trying to do things the correct way.
7. If none of that helps, and you continue to work there, you will have to mask the odor. Consider asking if you can have a small personal fan. That’s not ideal, but might help. You might ask if the work configuration can be changed in some way or that space assignments be changed. In jobs where there are unpleasant odors, workers wear surgical masks to cover their noses. That would get the point across!
I hope some of these ideas can be used to develop a plan of action that helps. I expect someone will need to talk to her directly, which I realize is something no one wants to do. But, it will only take those one or two sentences the first time and might solve the problem forever.
Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Lewis Rowe
Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about Irritating Perfume
I work in a family practice, one of our doctors wears/bathes in perfume that I know when she is in the building before I see her. No one else complains or acts like this is bothering them. The perfumes she wears instantly flare up my nose and this causes me to get irritated, I have actually used some medical orange scented spray to try to neutralize , but I am too busy to continue this on a daily basis! Now the reason I haven’t approached the office manager is because when many times I have mentioned that perfumes/colognes should not be used in a medical office, she blows it off. We do have a few signs that say not to wear perfumes as they may cause migraines or allergies to other patients or office staff.
Obviously these signs do not work. I finally approached the doctor drenched in perfume yesterday. In a nice quiet voice I told her I had a favor, if she would not wear perfume or fragrance, that it is very strong and bothers myself and some patients, to my surprise this doctor denied wearing anything with fragrance! Over and over she stated that nothing has ever been said in past, I responded that I have wanted to talk to her many times regarding this , and she kept denying and repeating herself that nothing was ever said before, and when a patient complains I should let her know so she can explain?
Finally I left her feeling baffled as to why the denial. I know the office manager will say she doesn’t notice a smell. I know this is totally immature and unprofessional, but one time I got so frustrated that I doused myself with peppermint body spray and went to work, well that backfired, I could not tolerate myself! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
A family practice setting in which some odor or fragrance evokes distress is an environment in which harmony is challenged by an assertive victim. That appears to be your problem. Unfortunately your office manager has “blown off” your requests to follow a policy “not to wear perfumes as they may cause migraines or allergies to other patients or office staff.” And your individual confrontation with the Doctor who wears the offending perfume has met with adamant denial. In short, you appear to be at a point of wearing a clothes pin over your nose, raising hell, or seeking work elsewhere. From this distance far from being able to smell what you smell, I know of no quick-fix. Possibly, the middle alternative of raising hell is worth a try before you look elsewhere.
Raising hell doesn’t have to be loud and demanding. Rather it can entail a formal request to your office manager, who should be responsible for dealing with this problem, to investigate and implement the “not to wear perfumes” policy. Your office manager “blowing it off” is not doing her job; perhaps she works scared to confront the doctor. A log of your attempts to cope should provide evidence the seriousness of your allergic reaction and courageous effort to resolve it. Also your request (in writing) should be supported by medical evidence. I assume you are a long-time valued employee and that this should make your request important. It’s not easy to find a replacement for a valued employee. A formal request is best received when accompanied with a face-to-face firm statement. So far, from what you say, you have not shown this side of you. Rather you’ve attempted a variety of ways to minimize the adverse effects of the doctor’s perfumes.
Before you raise hell, you might read or re-read some of our past Q&As on this topic.
Workplace Doctor Tina Lewis Rowe has provided detailed advice that you should have read if you had scanned some of our past Q&As on perfumes. (Listed below) In light of your distress and persistent attempts to resolve this problem, I have copied one segment of her suggestions of language to use when communication with a co-worker’s persistent use of an offending perfume: <http://workplacedr.cci.kent.edu/perfume-odor/>
I have spoken to dozens of people about their perfumes, hand lotions or strong fragrances in hair spray, deodorants and even their shower gel fragrance that lingers! I have a series of almost memorized statements that seem to work.
Employees nearly always protest that his or her fragrance is very light or that many have said they like it. But, I just stick to the message: It’s bothersome to some, including me, so you’ll have to reduce it significantly or not wear it at all. (Sometimes the specific fragrance is a problem, no matter how light it is, and sometimes the fragrance is OK but they’re wearing too much of it.)
Here’s some of the things I have said (which sound a bit awkward when written, but they worked in real life!)
“Hey, Jana, that fragrance you’re wearing must have a chemical in it that sets off my sinus reactions. Some of the best perfumes do! Whatever it is, it’s just too much. Could you find a way to wash some of it off now and then reduce it way, way down or not wear that one? I’ll really appreciate it.” (I keep a confidential tone, as though this is between them and me and I’m confident they’ll cooperate.) Or, “Ava, I usually like that fragrance, but it could be the recirculation of air in this office makes it get stronger. Could you help me out by washing some of it off now and either not having it so strong or not wearing that particular kind anymore? (Sympathetic smile) That may be one you’ll have to save for the weekend!”
“Vince, men’s cologne is nice for some settings, but, sad to say, I think the combination of it and a small work area is too much. Could you do me a favor and tone it down to about 1/10 of what you’re wearing today or not wear it at all? And for the sake of my sinuses could you wash some of it off in the next few minutes?” Or, “Bill, I don’t know what the fragrance is on your clothes or hair, but whatever it is, it’s really strong after a while. Do some investigating and figure out what it is and reduce it or don’t wear it, OK?” (It turned out, that was the spray that stops static cling. It kills my sinuses and was bothering others too.)
If someone has been wearing too much fragrance for a long time, but nothing has been said before, I have called him or her aside and said something like, “Lisa, I’ve been meaning to say something about the level of fragrance I notice when I’m in your work area. Between the closeness and the air recirculation, it’s just too much. I even notice it a lot now, standing here next to you. You don’t notice it I’m sure, because you’re wearing it and used to it, but you’ll need to wash some off now and reduce it way, way down or not wear it at all. “
As a coworker I said, “Marge, my sinuses can’t handle some fragrances, and the one you’re wearing is one of them! Or maybe it’s layered up and too strong for me. But, could you please do me a favor and wash some of it off and lower the level when you’re at work? It would help my headache a lot!” I’ve had managers tell me that they simply went up to someone and said, “That perfume is too strong, go wash it off and don’t wear it again.” But, I keep in mind that I’m going to be working with this person the rest of the day and in the coming days. I don’t want to ruin our working relationship over perfume. I also want to apply the Golden Rule: How would I want someone to approach me about an issue like that? I would want them to use tact and to not talk to me as though I knew it was a problem but wore it anyway, of as though I was stupid to not realize it was too strong.
I try to put the blame on the perfume not the wearer. If I’ve asked nicely and they still don’t comply, THEN, it’s the perfume- wearer that is the problem!
Please let us know if any of this makes sense and what you elect to do. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.
Perfume Worn By Medical Assistant Is Too Strong!
July 9, 2012 Tina Rowe Edit
August 27, 2010 Tina Rowe
Fragrances in the Workplace
March 19, 2009 Bill Gordon Edi
December 3, 2008 Tina Rowe Edit http://workplacedr.cci.kent.edu/?s=perfumes&submit=Go
Suggestion About Fragrance In The Workplace
November 5, 2007 Tina Rowe Edit
Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about BO:
I have been recently accused of having body odor issue by my manager. She told me that somebody observed that and that’s how she got to know about it. I have joined this place only a week ago, and I was shocked to hear something like this for the first time in my life. I am someone who would never compromise on personal hygiene and professional appearance. I have never been accused of something like this ever before. I feel very humiliated and insulted and I don’t know how to react to this situation. Please help.
You are stressed by this news that someone reported you have body odor. It’s difficult to adjust to a new job without an unexpected jolt to your self-confidence. Perhaps that individual was wrong; perhaps right. We’ve received questions such as yours more than a few times. Your manager did the right thing to bring this complaint to you. If you had been manager and someone brought this kind of complaint to you, you would have had to deal with it in a similar way. Now it’s up to you not to take this as an insult, but to reflect on whether the complaint has any substance. You say you “would never compromise on personal hygiene and professional appearance.” Yet there was this complaint. Therefore, like a detective check your clothing and body so that you come to work with clean and fresh. Consider changing perfumes and deodorants. Perhaps choose those that is odorless. That might have been the problem. Then come to work holding your head high and go about your new job duties.
Also you might meet with your manager and tell her how embarrassed and humiliated you are and state that you are making a special hygienic effort so that there is no lingering scent. Ask her help. Request that she does a “smell test” of you over the next few days so that you will know if you are okay as far as body odor. Rather than repeat advice that is much more extensive than mine, I’m referring you to several questions on this topic, most that have been answered by my associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe. I’m sure you will find these helpful Other Personnel Matters Hygiene Guidelines Perfumes & Odors Co-Worker With Body Odor Perfumes & Odors What Can We Do About Body Odor? Perfumes & Odors Person With A Bad Odor Perfumes & Odors Suggestion About Fragrance In The Workplace Perfumes & Odors When the BOSS has the BO? Perfumes & Odors My Bookkeeper Stinks!! Bad! Perfumes & Odors Horrific Feminine Odor!!! Perfumes & Odors Sleeping, Smelly Co-worker! Perfumes & Odors BO In School? Perfumes & Odors A Religious Reason For No Deodorant? Perfumes & Odors Find No Lasting Solution To My BO! Perfumes & Odors Another Co-worker With B.O.!
Don’t be obsessed with this and don’t gossip about it. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Sometimes we are distracted from work by our noses, and it is a boss and bossed mutual responsibility to clear the air. I predict you will survive this humiliation.