HR’s Guide to Dealing With Office Smells

Work stinks. From rotten eggs to boozy breath, the modern day workplace can be full of unpleasant and sometimes disconcerting aromas. Naturally, your HR department is the first stop for employees looking to air their grievances (and hopefully not much else).
 

We know it all sounds funny, but if handled inappropriately, something as minor as a scent can carry big compliance risks. In 2005, a Michigan disc jockey was awarded a $10.6 million payday after she claimed her employer refused to accommodate her perfume allergy. The jury found that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covered her sensitivity to that particular smell.
 

To make sure you don’t find your company in the headlines next, we’ve compiled the most common office smells and how to handle them when employees come calling.

Body Odor

 

There are few HR jobs more daunting or awkward than confronting an employee about body odor. Leaving the task to his or her potentially less tactful colleagues might open the door to workplace bullying, so it’s your responsibility to address it directly. If you trust that the employee’s manager can handle the situation appropriately, you can also train him or her on how to have the conversation.
 

Pull the individual aside at the end of their working day. Your discussion should be one-on-one, so not as to make the individual feel that they’re being ambushed. Location is everything, as the conversation needs to be private and far from the eyes of suspecting co-workers.
 

Bring up the odor as a personal observation, not something that other co-workers have reported. Be respectful and give the employee ample time to respond. If the individual notes that his or her odor is due to a medical condition or cultural observation, you’ll need to accommodate them so as not to run afoul of the ADA or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Work with the employee to craft a plan, like offering them a flexible schedule or the option to telecommute more often. Whatever the plan, be sure that the individual is comfortable with the accommodation as well. As with any sensitive conversation, be sure to document the exchange.
 

In cases where the odor isn’t due to a condition, much of this can be avoided if you set clear expectations from the get-go. If your company already has a dress code in its employee handbook, consider making reference to personal hygiene as well.

 

Perfume

 

We’ve all worked with a colleague who smells like a department store’s perfume aisle. As with body odor, address the matter privately and politely, being mindful that the overuse of a fragrance could be to compensate for an underlying medical condition.
 

When it comes to handling this scent, you’ll need to accommodate those on the receiving end as well. As much as a third of the population suffers from a condition called fragrance sensitivity, where scented products like colognes and air fresheners can cause allergy symptoms. In the worst cases, it can even trigger asthma attacks. Fragrance sensitivity is a clinically observed phenomenon, not a fringe science—and as such, failing to address an employee complaint could open the door to ADA litigation.
 

In addition to speaking with your resident perfume enthusiasts, reconsider your office’s own reliance on scented products, including air fresheners and cleaning supplies. Instead, focus on less offensive, odor-neutralizing alternatives.

 

Alcohol

 

An employee comes to you with something troubling: she smells alcohol on a colleague’s breath. It’s a touchy situation to say the least, and a compliance minefield. What should you do?
 

Never act on an employee complaint without investigating the matter further. Interview the individual’s manager to determine whether they’ve noticed anything suspicious, and ask them to observe and document anything that seems amiss about the employee’s behavior. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) recommends getting a second opinion from another member of management, and they've also drafted this helpful template for reference. Remember that ordering a drug test should always be a last resort.
 

Even if you have a zero-tolerance policy against the use of alcohol in the office, note that in rare cases, disciplining employees could subject you to a discrimination claim. Though the ADA makes no specific reference to alcoholism, courts have historically ruled that it qualifies as a protected disability. For this reason, it’s worth the time and expense to consult with an employment attorney before taking next steps.

 

Smelly Food

 

Something smell fishy? Come lunchtime, the aroma emanating from the office might be anything but appetizing. Some 62 percent of U.S. workers regularly eat lunch at their desks, a habit that has led to crusty keyboards and numerous HR complaints. Thankfully for you, this smell is fraught with less compliance risks than the others.
 

Actively encourage employees to step away from their desks and eat in the company break room or, weather permitting, at a nearby park. Highlight the professional and health benefits, as socializing with coworkers over lunch has been shown to lower blood pressure and even improve job performance.
 

Oh, and if your office has a refrigerator, be sure to have it cleaned at least once a week as per USDA food safety guidelines. If your company doesn’t have the budget to hire cleaners, make it a shared responsibility—it’s amazing what lengths colleagues might go to participate in a raffle or get the chance to leave work early.

Right or wrong, employees often view HR as their company’s complaint department. As soon as you think you can dive into that big strategic initiative of yours, someone comes to complain about Rachel’s penchant for having tuna salad for lunch.
 

Silly as it seems, these little moments often carry big compliance and employee relations risks. Whether it’s the ADA or the Civil Rights Act, addressing something as seemingly innocuous as body odor can put your company in the compliance crosshairs.
 

Bottom line? It can be a stinky job, but someone has to do it.