Overpowering Odor: When a coworker’s perfume becomes bothersome

by epi on July 30, 2012

Q: I work in a ‘cube’ office environment, so any strong scents are easily detectable due to the close proximity of co-workers. I have one co-worker in particular who always wears very strong perfume/cologne that irritates my allergies and occasionally gives me a migraine. This interferes with my work, but after repeated emails to this person’s supervisor, nothing has changed even though the supervisor has sent general emails about strong scents to the department as a whole. Is there a tactful way I can do something about this without creating an enemy?

A: If you have already spoken to your colleague’s supervisor, then your best course of action is to go directly to the source. If the supervisor’s general emails have gone unheeded, perhaps it is because this person is unaware that they are wearing such a strong scent. Talk openly and politely to the offending colleague, and try to make them aware of the severity of your medical condition. Be straightforward but tactful, and ask that they refrain from wearing the perfume/ cologne at work so that you will not be affected.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lilli July 30, 2012 at 9:35 am

If you are still struggling perhaps your supervisor could move you to a cubicle further away from this co-worker. It won’t help when you need to interact with him/her but on days that you don’t need to be near them it would be better than nothing.

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Elizabeth July 30, 2012 at 9:53 am

I really like the EPI advice because it’s much easier to disregard an impersonal memo than it is a live person standing in front of you who’s really suffering. I would only add that it’s key to emphasize that you are allergic to an ingredient in the perfume, and it’s really irritating your allergies and giving you migraines. Don’t comment on the quality or smell of the perfume, and simply ask her to stop wearing it as a favor to you. (If you know the allergen that’s giving you trouble, you might say: “I’m really allergic to lavender – would you mind switching to something that doesn’t contain that ingredient?)

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Christina September 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm

live in Califonia, work in cube situation, have gone home sick several times with mirgraines from perfume worn by coworker. had discussion with her asking her not to wear it. she reported me to HR for harasssment. They had me fill out coworkers comp claim. Made me get note from MD about my mirgraines. Moved worker one cube over but can still smell fragrance. HR staff who use to be friendly toward me are now not talking to me and if we pass each other in hallway they turn their heads the other way. what do you suggest.

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Winifred Rosenburg September 25, 2012 at 8:46 am

If people you work with are going to behave so childishly there is really nothing you can do to change that other than look for a new job. Best of luck to you!

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Elizabeth September 25, 2012 at 9:31 am

On the contrary, isn’t this kind of thing covered under ADA or other workplace laws? I think you could try two things, perhaps in tandem: try to have a meeting with the friendliest of the HR people and inquire about the frostiness. You have a real medical condition that could easily be accommodated and they’re treating you unbelievably badly. If you have no luck with them, you could try to take it up the chain. At the same time, I would look into hiring a lawyer with knowledge of this kind of situation. If you just quit, then these people will go on thinking that they have the power to chase you away. This is, I presume, your means of livelihood, and if I would you I would fight for working conditions that do not leave you sick and incapacitated.

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Just Laura September 25, 2012 at 9:53 am

Thanks for bringing this up, Elizabeth.
[I am not an attorney.] Migraine headaches can be considered a disability, and therefore covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You have already voluntarily disclosed the issues (i.e. provided a note from your doctor). Did the note from the doctor mention the functional impact of the disability? (That is, did it say that strong scents can trigger the headaches?) Requesting that your exposure to these unnecessary scents be limited would be a reasonable accommodation in your workplace, as this accommodation does not pose undue hardship on your employer. (Now, if you worked in a perfume factory, this would be different.) Most migraine court cases occur because the migraines cause too many absences for the employee. You don’t appear to have that problem, so I’m surprised that HR is being so difficult about your entirely reasonable request.

Somewhat relevant case: See Dutton v. Johnson County Bd., 1995 WL 337588, 3 AD Cas. (BNA) 1614 (D. Kan. 1995)

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Elizabeth September 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Great info, Laura.

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