Q: After having a child six years ago, I’m ow ready to return to work. However, I suffer from “post-pregnancy scent syndrome.” Ever since I became pregnant, I’ve been very sensitive to certain scents such as perfumes and restroom air sanitizers. Breathing these substances gives me a headache and nausea and can sometimes cause difficulty breathing. According to my physician, this condition is fairly common among women who have been pregnant, and there’s no cure or treatment. At home, I’ve been able to control my environment by asking family and friends to avoid perfumes, air deodorizers and so on. I’m concerned about my future work environment, though. Should I bring up my concern with a potential employer during the interview process? If so, how? Also, if I do happen to find myself in a meeting with someone who is wearing perfume (during a job interview, for example, or with a co-worker or client), how can I politely address the situation?
A: The problem of scent sensitivity is a very real and growing issue in the workplace. Symptoms include headaches as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation, all of which can make it very difficult to focus on work. The syndrome isn’t just confined to sensitivity to perfumes or colognes; a person can also have a negative reaction to cleaning products. Some companies have responded by instituting scent-free workplace policies. The problem is, not all workplaces have a scent-free policy. In your quest for a job, one approach might be to try eliminating companies right off the bat if they don’t have such a policy. It may be easier to find an employer with an existing policy than to try and get your new employer to adopt one. Prior to a job interview, ask a person in the human resources department or even the receptionist answering the phone whether the company has a scent-free policy. A less desirable approach is to ask about the company’s policy at the interview itself. Reason: that may reveal a condition that you do not want known as they evaluate you for the job. Once in a job, if you find yourself reacting to a scent someone is wearing, you’ll have to perform a balancing act between specifically mentioning the problem and choosing just to grin and bear it. If the situation becomes noticeably difficult for you, the best approach is to politely explain your problem in a nonconfrontational way: “Jill, I’m sorry, you may not know it, but I have a strong reaction to certain scents and that seems to be happening now. Perhaps if I keep a little more space between us, I won’t be affected as much. I hope you’ll understand.”