The nose knows: Dealing with workplace odors, scents and smells

Who hasn’t needed help in finding just the right words when talking to an employee about their stink?  Stinky breath, stinky body, stinky clothes, stinky food.  And those are just a few of the easier to discuss matters.

But what about employees that smell … good? And who’s to say what smells good? It’s a subjective thing.

Body odor, food smells and perfume/fragrance can all cause issues for employees that are particularly sensitive to smells and have to work in proximity to those causing the smells.

Here are a number of tips for managers when approaching an employee who needs to tone down the use of perfumed products:

  1. Communicate the sensitivities that some people have to artificially scented products. Perfumes can cause sniffling, dizziness, headaches, nausea and breathing problems. Some reactions, like shortness of breath, are particularly severe for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. You may want to consider setting a general workplace policy relating to the topic of workplace smells.
  2. Make it clear to your employees that perfumes aren’t necessarily the only offender. Heavily scented soaps, shampoos, makeup and even laundry detergents can also cause problems for some people.
  3. Set an example at the level of management. Don’t wear scented products yourself, and avoid using air fresheners, scented candles and scented sprays in the office. Instead, turn on fans and open a few windows to freshen the air.
  4. Encourage employees to talk to each other about scent sensitivities. Explain that it’s OK to ask a teammate to tone down her perfume, as long as it’s done politely. Give examples of how to courteously ask someone to avoid fragrance use. Say, for instance, “I’m really sensitive to scents, and I think I’m reacting to something you’re wearing. I’d really appreciate it if you could avoid using that perfume at work.” If an employee continues to have problems, a manager may need to intervene.
  5. Meet one-on-one with individual workers if excessive scents remain a problem a week after issuing a general workplace policy. Explain why you are calling the person into your office, express that you understand that she or he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and then ask the employee to avoid wearing the scent. For example: “As you know, we have some people in the office who are very sensitive to scents. You may not be aware of it and I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but a few people have come to me with concerns about a scent they’ve noticed you’re wearing. From now on, I’d like to ask that you avoid wearing that perfume to work.”

It’s never fun to deal with the “stink” issue, whether good or bad, but it may be helpful to keep two things in mind before broaching the subject:  No one wants to be embarrassed and most people want to be team players.



Lisandra Quinones, HR Administrator


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