Smells At Work

Published February 1, 2012

When I do discrimination trainings, I always talk about smells at work. Maybe I have a sensitive nose, but smells at work can be a real distraction. Smells include the stinky ones like body odor but they also include the more subjective obnoxious smells such as perfumes, candles and those room deodorants things that squirt out a liquid smell every few minutes or so. I don't know about you but those so called "nice" smells aren't so nice to me.

Our workplace today is getting smaller and smaller, plus we spend more and more time there. Why wouldn't you want to have that environment as nice as possible for everyone. You may love your pine scented with a touch of orange blossom candle, but everyone else may not. I was once on a plane, strapped in my seat, reviewing my notes on discrimination for a speech I was to give later that day. I noticed my seatmate craning his neck to look at what I was reading and he finally inquired about it. When I told him, he wanted to know if he could ask me a question. When I gave him the go ahead, he said his wife was driving him crazy. Every day she came home complaining about work. The problem was the hand lotion her coworker used. She hated the smell of that hand lotion. He wanted to know if that was discrimination. I told him probably not, but that his wife should have asked the coworker to please not wear apply the lotion and if that didn't work to talk to HR. After that incident, I have always included smells in my trainings. It is the little things at work that bug people. Those little things, (just like a splinter in your finger) get bigger and bigger, become infected and may eventually turn into a lawsuit.

The incident on the plane happened long ago, but now smells can become discrimination. One example is the case, Susan McBride v. City of Detroit. McBride was a senior city planner at the City of Detroit. McBride had multiple chemical sensitivities. All was well for McBride at work until a new coworker began plugging in a room deodorizer and wearing a very strong perfume. McBride asked her coworker to stop with the smells. The coworker unplugged the room deodorizer but refused to stop wearing the strong perfume. McBride became sick and ultimately had to take time off from work. McBride saw a doctor for the issue and missed a lot of work. The City of Detroit took the position that allowing McBride to take FMLA leave was an accommodation under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) (This was before the amendments in 2009). McBride wanted a scent policy at the City but the City refused.

In 2008, the Court found that the failure to work with McBride concerning a scent policy was a failure to accommodate under the ADA. McBride received $100,000 and the City instituted a scent policy that allowed mild scents in moderation but prohibited strong or offensive scents that could be a detriment in the workforce.

It is important for HR to be sensitive (no pun indented) to the issues of smells. I recommend that candles and room deodorizers be prohibited at work. Body odor is a subject that should be discussed by HR with the offending participant in a private setting. This is also true for perfumes. There is no constitutional right to wear a strong perfume in the workplace. The subject should be approached sensitively but still addressed. How many of you have been on an elevator, it stops on the floor and a woman gets on. Suddenly the smell of a very strong perfume overpowers the elevator. Gag, you are trapped. Or better yet, you are at a restaurant enjoying your meal and a woman walks by, now the delicious flavors of your meal are blocked by a strong perfume. This nose peeling smell is left even after the offending woman has exited from the scene. To her it is a scent, to others, it is a smell. I thought perfume was suppose to be something that you smell when you hug someone, not when you walk by.

So much for my smell sermon, but at work it really should be a "no smell" zone.

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