What About a Fragrance-Free Workplace?

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.

I cannot find anything that states there is a law requiring a company to be ‘fragrance free’ if they have an employee who is sensitive to fragrances. It seems that many individuals who claim to be sensitive to fragrances actually just have a ‘preference’. I, for example, don’t like musk perfumes and odors. They irritate my eyes and nose, but I am aware it’s because I don’t particularly like that smell. I like florals and ‘clean’ scents. Again, just a preference…

If someone claims to have a sensitivity and wants a fragrance free workplace, is a company required to implement a policy?

Why should a company inconvenience others to accommodate another simply because they don’t like the perfume ‘so and so’ is wearing. Extend that to other personal products such as body soap, shampoo, laundry care, etc…wouldn’t it be some kind of violation to tell other employees they can only use fragrance free laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and personal hygiene products? Unless a company intends on purchasing those products for EVERY employee, I don’t see how they could dictate their use. And, if the company did purchase/reimburse employees for fragrance free products, would the company have the right to terminate an employee for refusing to accept/use the products?

I agree it’s reasonable to ask employees not to use perfumes and body sprays or room deodorizers or strong cleaners. But, how do you handle a situation when the employee who claims fragrance sensitivity says that someone’s fabric softener and shampoo make him/her so ill he/she has to go home?

Desperate to find the balance between scent and unscented…

Response: We aren’t ADA, OSHA or HR specialists, we focus on workplace communication issues and other situations that cause distractions and conflicts at work. At the top of the list of those other situations is odors and fragrances.

Many people dislike specific fragrances and scents from any sources and are distracted by the presence of what they consider to be an unpleasant odor. Many other people suffer physical reactions from mild to severe, from being exposed to the chemicals used in fragrance-added products, as well as natural fragrances in flowers and oils. This isn’t imaginary, it’s a real, physical reaction to those chemical components.

Sadly, there are many employees who keep stuffy noses, burning eyes and sore throats from fragrances around them, but they don’t complain. They don’t want to be viewed as a problem coworker and they have suffered for so long, it just becomes they way they have to live. What a shame!

For example, when you say that you don’t like musk perfume and it irritates your eyes and nose, you are saying that your body has an allergic reaction to the chemicals in musk perfume. You may not like the smell, but the tissues in your eyes and nose don’t react to your attitude about the fragrance, they react to the chemicals to which they have a sensitivity.

Unfortunately, in the same offices as people who dislike some scents and people who are severely allergic to them, are people who like scents, want to use them–and often just don’t care that it harms other people or distracts them. They have the 16 hours a day they are away from work during their work week and their entire weekend, to be surrounded by fragrances. But, they aren’t willing to go for 8 hours a day during the week, to reduce the distractions and physical harm their fragrances cause others. It’s a sad commentary on their courtesy and consideration.

That is why most medical facilities, schools and many corporations and businesses have developed policies and rules that prohibit the use by employees of personal fragrances, highly scented fabric and hair care products and room fragrances. I have worked or spent time in several offices where such policies have been instituted–and found that life went on such fine without Bath and Body Works, Avon and the latest designer fragrances, warring with incense, candles, Glade, Scentsy, Lysol, Febreze and Downy,

Employers are within their rights to make an effort to reduce the sources of distraction, discomfort and illness for their employees. There are no laws right now that require them to do so, but there have been cases of American with Disabilities Act intervention to require accommodation for employees with allergies to fragrances.

An important fact is that there is no constitutional protection involved with the use of fragrances, just as there is no constitutional protection for playing music at desks, wearing personally preferred clothes over those required by a dress code, flexing schedules because it’s more convenient or any other issue involving personal preferences. Business owners and corporate leaders simply decide what will be the practice in the workplace and managers and supervisors make it so. The angst over fragrances doesn’t have to be catered to–it’s not harmful or punitive to employees to stop their use of fragrances and no lengthy explanation is needed.

Further, employers do not have to provide unscented products, because the employees are not being required to spend additional money–they were buying products anyway. In fact, employees may save money by only using their scented products at home. And, they aren’t wasting anything they have already purchased, because they have many hours away from work in which they can use them.

Those types of arguments about needing to be provided with unscented products usually reflect a “dig in our heels” attitude, rather than a real concern. They are an indicator of the degree to which an employee is a good workplace citizen. My experience has been that such an obstinate attitude usually is present in everything else they do.

If you check our archives you will see many letters about this issue. You can also find numerous websites, including many with useful links. But the bottom line is this: There is no universally defensible reason for people to wear or use products that emit a fragrance. There are plenty of defensible reasons for not risking the negative effects of those fragrances in the workplace.

My advice is to make the rule and move on. It will probably take a few weeks for all employees to adjust to the idea that they really can’t just do anything they want to do at work. Then, they’ll move on too. I don’t have any extra cash, but I almost would bet that no one will quit because of it and many will be very, very grateful.

Best wishes to you with this issue. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know if your organization implements a policy and what happens after that.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.