When Work Stinks: What Employers Need to Know

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Employee Sensitivity to Office Smells Could Lead to Litigation

Sometimes, work stinks – literally. One employee’s olfactory delight can be another colleague’s nasal affront. You could say that – similar to the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – pleasant odors are in the olfactory glands of the sniffer.

Some of the office aromas employees most commonly complain about include:

  • Perfume/cologne
  • Food
  • Body odor
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Bad breath
  • Scented candles
  • Alcohol breath
  • Air fresheners
  • Kitchen/cooking odors

Sometimes, odoriferous office smells can fire up internal battles. When employees express their discontent with the smells coming from down the hall, mishandling those complaints can carry major compliance risks. Employees with scents sensitivities may have underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD or allergies, all of which constitute disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Another qualifying condition is fragrance sensitivity, which causes allergy symptoms in about one-third of the American population when they are exposed to scented products like perfume, cologne and air fresheners.

Laughing off the problem or failing to offer reasonable accommodations to employees who can’t tolerate certain office smells could open the door to ADA or civil rights litigation.

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Besides accommodating the complaining employees with solutions that could include relocation or telecommuting, other steps employers can take to clear the air include:

  • Including language that addresses personal hygiene and “excessive” smells and scents in employee handbooks and dress code policies.
  • Conducting a good-faith, interactive process to individually assess an affected employee’s requested accommodation, even if it’s not granted.
  • Having managers, with the assistance of a HR professional, discreetly address the offending employee in person to resolve the situation.
  • Establishing food-related policies and having the breakroom refrigerator regularly cleaned.

Office smells can sour your business if they stymy employee productivity. Don’t let one employee’s tuna sandwich or penchant for perfume start a chain reaction of events that could land you in court. Discourage actions and products that create odors employees could find offensive, and take related complaints seriously to avoid putting your company in the compliance crosshairs.

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Cori McClish

Written by Cori McClish