With a take on The REAL Housewives franchise, this article is the first in a series of real world employee issues that HR professionals manage day to day. The intent is to provide practical, rather than theoretical guidance on how to approach and resolve these types of problems.
Utopia Corporation is a call center handling billing processes for clients. The workplace is a mostly a large open facility with a number of work stations (cubicles) arranged in pods of four. There are a few closed offices reserved for supervisors and managers. It is rare that clients come on site, so the environment is casual. The dress code policy allows employees to wear jeans, and even shorts during the hottest summer months.
Doug and Sue work at Utopia, and they work in a cubicle pod together. Doug is a new hire, still within his 90 day orientation period, and he is a heavy smoker. Each break time he heads out to the designated smoking area. In an apparent attempt to mask the lingering smell of smoke on his person, Doug sprays on cologne very heavily.
Recently, Sue communicated to her supervisor that she suffers from migraine headaches, sometimes so debilitating that she has to miss work. Since Doug’s hire, the migraines have gotten worse, and Sue is convinced that it is due to the smoky/cologne smells coming from Doug. She wants to move to an enclosed office where she can be shielded from the foul smells.
Scenarios like this play out often in the workplace, and HR professionals are called upon to resolve the matters. So, what should happen in this case?
There are a few issues here. First, fragrance sensitivities are becoming a concern in the workplace. Individuals are more aware of how smells can trigger adverse reactions. Types of offensive odors range from strong perfumes to bad body odor. Employee handbooks should have a policy on workplace fragrances, and employees held accountable to it. The likelihood of establishing a totally “fragrance-free” workplace is low, however, employees can be asked to refrain from using strong fragrances that linger and may trigger an adverse response in a co-worker.
Secondly, in this scenario, the offensive smell is cigarette smoke. Will Doug be expected to stop smoking? If Sue is experiencing a reaction to it, more than likely there are others who find the smells unpleasant. However, it isn’t reasonable to expect Doug to discontinue a personal activity that is currently not prohibited by company policy. Sue has disclosed that her migraines are worsened by the smells, her medical condition warrants a step into the interactive process as outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A recommendation from a medical professional is necessary to determine a suitable reasonable accommodation for Sue. There are options available that will lessen Sue's exposure to the smells that are more reasonable than the solution she is requesting. For example, moving her to a cubicle near a ventilated area, or providing an air purifier.
Finally, have a discussion with Doug about the offensive smells. This step is the most sensitive. Every effort should be made to ensure that the "offending" employee doesn't feel attacked. Often blanket e-mails or notices are sent to all staff with a reminder about strong fragrances, when a candid conversation with the employee in question is a more effective approach. Engage the employee in the process of resolving the issue. Ask him what he can do differently to manage the problem.
Bottom line, don't ignore employee complaints of foul odors, although sensitive, these issues can be resolved. For assistance with these and other types of real workplace matters contact the Advice and Resolution team.