Odors and Fragrances Are Not Welcome at Work

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Mar 19, 2012
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Employees say a co-worker with body odor is just as bad as one who takes credit for other people’s ideas—and worse than listening to someone's loud personal calls or having food stolen from the office refrigerator. Whether HR or supervisors should step in depends on the situation, experts say.

Overall, 39 percent of 2,000 male and female Americans surveyed by Fitness magazine and Shine.com, a website for women, said body odor and idea-stealing tied for first place on a list of common workplace pet peeves, according to a survey released Feb. 12, 2012.

Twelve percent of respondents said they dislike another workplace odor—stinky food.

HR professionals networking on SHRM Online report frequently about the variety of odor-related issues they field in the workplace, including:

  • Perfume.
  • Employees who smell like smoke.
  • Bad breath.
  • Flatulence.
  • Scented candles.
  • Alcohol breath.

Have a Conversation

“If someone has an offensive odor, there is a little-known tactic that seems to get results: Talk to them,” said one Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member in response to a SHRM Online post about garlic breath.

In a separate posting about an employee with body odor, another SHRM member agreed that a conversation is warranted but added, “say it pretty fast, in case you need to hold your breath!”

“Just address issues directly with care and concern for the person's dignity,” offered yet another member in response to a discussion about flatulence.

Whenever possible, such conversations should be initiated by an employee's manager, with guidance from HR.

Andrea Ballard, SPHR, a former HR practitioner and owner of Expecting Change, LLC, a Washington state consultancy, said she once had to talk to an employee about body odor after co-workers complained. “Her supervisor worked in another branch and wasn't able to see— smell?—the problem,” she wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online. Moreover, they agreed that such a sensitive issue would be handled much better in a face-to-face discussion.

Because the employee had worked for the company for years without prior complaints, Ballard began by explaining the situation to the employee. When she discovered that the employee was unaware of the problem, however, Ballard urged the employee to seek guidance from her doctor. “It turned out that certain medication combinations were causing odor issues,” Ballard explained. “It took a few months of her working with her doctor, but ultimately she was able to resolve the situation.”

In this situation, Ballard said, it was important for HR to be involved because “many of the co-workers assumed she was aware and just didn't care.”

“This is someone's job to handle and if the manager doesn't address it, it falls to HR,” said Devora Lindeman, a partner with the employment law firm Greenwald Doherty, LLP, in New York.

An HR professional's awareness of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), company policy and the need for confidentiality come in handy at times like these.

“Obviously I couldn't discuss her medical condition with the co-workers,” Ballard said, “But I could let them know we had talked and that she was actively engaged in trying to figure it out and rectify the situation.”

“Very bad body odor or bad breath could, unfortunately (but not necessarily) be an indicator of an underlying disability,” Lindeman said. And other employment-law related issues can arise when there appears to be alcohol involved—or smoking in a smoke-free environment, she said.

“But even if there is no direct legal issue, it certainly becomes a morale problem and that is a problem to be addressed by HR,” Lindeman said.

In most situations, however, managers should be the ones to handle employee odor issues, just as they would if the issue involved work performance or work habits, said Sallie Biittner, executive HR consultant for the Affinity HR Group, LLC.

Take a Standard Approach

Biittner suggested that managers follow a standard meeting formula whenever they meet with employees to discuss issues so that they avoid employee perceptions of inconsistent treatment. Her recommended approach is for the manager to:

  • Invite the employee in to talk, while making efforts to put the employee at ease.
  • Describe what has been observed or the present concern and how it impacts others or affects productivity.
  • Give the employee a chance to respond.
  • Ask the employee for ideas on how to resolve the situation.
  • Work with the employee to decide what actions will be taken.
  • Schedule a time to follow up with the employee to provide positive feedback on resolution of the problem or to discuss next steps.

HR can play a key role in such situations, Biittner said, by coaching managers prior to the employee meeting to make sure that they have considered all angles and are ready for an “even-keeled, professional, corrective discussion”—and are prepared for a variety of possible reactions.

“It’s a quality check; if anything goes wrong, HR has that early heads-up,” she explained.

Clarify Expectations with Policy

Lindeman encourages companies to address personal hygiene and “excessive smells or scents” in their dress code policies. “That way, the discussion can focus on the policy violation and not just someone's subjective opinion that someone else smells bad,” she told SHRM Online.

Cheryl Berger, PHR, GPHR, an Oregon-based HR professional, said that's what her company did when the odor in question was perfume.

First, the manager was asked to have a general conversation with his team regarding sensitivity to perfumes, she told SHRM Online, and to suggest that employees refrain from wearing fragrances that have “a perceptible odor beyond the wearer.”

Next, the manager discussed safety issues, noting that allergies and breathing problems can be triggered when employees wear or use perfumed products at work.

In addition, the company introduced a “fragrance-free workplace” policy, Berger said, which states, in part, that “personal fragrant products (fragrances, colognes, lotions, powders and other similar products) that are perceptible to others should not be worn by employees.” The document goes on to note that other fragrant products, such as scented candles, potpourri and similar items, are not permitted in the workplace.

HR should be involved from the start when a possible policy violation is identified by an employee’s sense of smell, Biittner noted, in case substance abuse testing or other actions are needed to confirm that a policy violation has occurred.

Avoid Employee Interventions

Ensuring that HR and people managers are prepared to handle situations before they arise can help discourage employees from peer-to-peer interventions.

“I've heard of people wrapping the policy around a bar of soap or deodorant and leaving it discreetly for the offending individual,” Lindeman said. “However, that doesn't always work when people are not aware of the problem.”

Biittner is not an advocate of this approach, however, because a failed intervention can spill over into other work behavior and productivity issues.

Nevertheless, there are times when employees feel that the best solution is to tell their peers directly. In such cases they should be “as sensitive to the individual's feelings as possible,” Lindeman said, as she was when she confronted a co-worker with what she called “horrendous” body odor. “I pulled her aside one day and told her quietly that I didn't think her deodorant was doing the job and she might consider switching brands,” she explained.

Though Lindeman received an hug from her colleague for mentioning it, she noted that “not everyone is going to be so appreciative.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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