negotiating a sign-on bonus, my new coworkers chat all day long, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My new coworkers chat all day long

I’ve looked through some of your posts on dealing with chatty coworkers, but they’re mostly about when chatty coworkers talk to you. I’d like to know what to do about chatty coworkers who chat all the time to each other, not necessarily just to you.

I work in an open area and there are three other young women (20 to 30s) that I work with. They just yak all day about celebrities, gossip, Kate Middleton, food, fashion, boats that pass by outside (we have a waterfront office), the office temperature (It’s always too hot or too cold—I never feel the temperature fluctuations and I suspect they just like having something to complain about.), etc. It’s driving me crazy. One makes personal calls several times a day too for 15 minutes on average to her mother, friends, or just to arrange reservations or social activities. I have my headphones on while I work, but I don’t want to wear headphones all day, put my head down and do work while my coworkers hang around each others’ computers and chat and DON’T WORK.

I am the new hire though, and they’ve been like this before I came along. Should I still talk to my manager about this (even though she’s probably used to it) or HR? Or would I be seen as complaining and making a big deal since they’ve been like this before I’ve come along?

As the newcomer, you’re entering into a culture that is already established, and you don’t really have a lot of prerogative to try to change it if it’s working for everyone else. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to alter habits of the rest of an existing group, particularly with a manager who apparently doesn’t care much. As a new hire, the onus is more on you to try to find ways to work effectively within this context.

One thing I’d want to know in your shoes: Is the work something that they can excel at while chatting this much? Or is their productivity suffering? The answer will vary depending on the kind of work they’re doing, but if it is impacting their productivity, you’ve got a management problem on your hands, and that doesn’t bode well.

2. Should I ask if the essential oils I use to treat my headaches are bothering my coworkers?

Our office’s admin keeps making comments about some essential oils I use. Rather than taking aspirin, I like to use essential oils to treat my headaches. The blend that I use smells pretty strongly, and I use it occasionally at work. By occasionally, I mean maybe once every two or three weeks. Our office was just assigned a new admin. The past two times I’ve used it (the only times I’ve used it since she has been employed here), she has made a comment about how it smells. She uses the oils too, so she is familiar with the blend’s smell.

The first time she said something, I brushed it off. But now that she has said something a second time, I’m wondering what her intentions are, because I really can’t tell if she is just trying to make conversation or if she is actually bothered by the smell. Either way her comments make me uncomfortable. I’m also new in the office (I’ve only worked here one month longer than her) and worry that if she is bothered by the smell other people are too.

This last time she came to talk to me, she came and asked if I had a headache because she could smell the oils “all the way at her desk,” which is maybe 20 feet away. I said “Wow, I didn’t realize it was that strong, and I guess you’ll know every time I get a headache.” She hasn’t flat out said, “The smell bothers me,” nor has anyone else that sits around me. Should I address it, or should I just leave it alone?

Ask. If it’s bothering people, that’s something you want to know. So yes, I’d ask — and I’d even ask proactively since she’s commented on it twice. Just say something like, “I should have asked you the last time you mentioned being able to smell the oils. Is the smell bothering you, or have you heard that it’s bothering others? I’d want to be sensitive to that if so.”

When you’re in doubt about whether or not to inquire about whether something you’re doing is bothering others (when it comes to noise, smells, or other similar factors), err on the side of being considerate.

3. Negotiating a sign-on bonus when you have to repay your last employer

My husband’s job offers paid parental leave, so he took 12 weeks to stay home with our baby after I returned to work. He’s currently five weeks in.

He isn’t happy at his job and has been using his leave to search for new opportunities. However, his paid leave comes with a caveat that he has to return to work for at least three months. If he doesn’t, he’ll be responsible for reimbursing his company for the money they paid him while on leave.

If he finds another position before the three months are up, would it be inappropriate to attempt to negotiate for a sign-on bonus with the new company to help defray the cost of paying back his leave pay?

It depends on where your husband is in his career. For junior positions in most fields, it would be pretty hard to negotiate that, but for senior-level positions or in in-demand fields, sure, that’s totally reasonable to raise.

4. Can I contact our board about our change in benefits?

I work at a small credit union that employs 17 employees. The credit union has always covered 80% of our health insurance cost, including the coverage for the employee’s dependants. The CEO has announced that the credit union will no longer cover any cost of the dependant health insurance costs. This will cost my family around $500 per month. Currently I pay $141 per month for myself and my two dependants. I feel this change is going to cause me and other employees a considerable hardship. I would like to discuss this change with the credit union board of directors to ensure they understand how this change is going to negatively impact the employees. However, I am concerned the CEO will take it out on me negatively when she discovers I discussed it with the board. What is your recommendation? Should I discuss this change with the board?

Whoa, no, that’s not typically done. In most organizations, staff do not go directly to the board with concerns (with some clear exceptions, like if the CEO herself is the problem). It’s set up that way for a reason; otherwise, you’d have staff going around the CEO for all sorts of things.

There’s someone in your office who’s the appropriate person to voice your concerns to: It might be the person in charge of benefits, or your own manager, or perhaps the CEO herself. It depends on the internal workings of your particular office, and if you’re not sure, it makes sense to start with your own manager — but this isn’t something you should be approaching the board about. (And in most organizations, doing that would be a serious breach.)

5. How much detail should I go into in my cover letter about the reasons for a spotty job history?

After graduating college several years ago, a handful of bad circumstances required me to move back home, and since then, I’ve mostly been doing part-time, freelance telecommuting work when I can find it. I’ve recently started diving back into the job hunt full-force, and I realize my spotty job record (among so many other things) is going to work against me.

How much is too much when explaining things like this? Telling the whole truth in that I’ve been taking care of my sick grandmother round-the-clock as she struggles with breast cancer seems like too much to drop on somebody in something as preliminary as a cover letter (and I personally feel like it isn’t their business.) However, I would like them to know my somewhat thin job history isn’t simply because of laziness on my part (since I’m also aware I have that “Millennial” tag to fight off,) but that other things simply took precedence. How far can I go in explaining my complicated circumstances without going too far?

“Because I’ve been helping an ill family member since graduating college in 2011, I’ve taken on part-time and freelance work, but I’m now eager to commit myself fully to full-time work.”

That’s it. No need to get into the details of the explanation, just the category (“helping an ill family member”).

{ 146 comments… read them below }

  1. Aam Admi*

    #2 – ‘Scents’ are banned at our medical centre. I am fully in favour of this ban as they trigger my migraines. Funnily though, some strong scents (specific Asian Balms) actually cure my migraines better than prescription medication and I use those Balms when I am at home.

  2. Jeanne*

    #2, if you already know that these oils have a strong smell, it’s pretty rude to use them at work. You know some people could have allergies. You know some people could just think they’re disgusting. You know they can be smelled quite far from your desk. How would you feel if someone came in drenched in cheap perfume and it gave you a headache? That is probably how some feel about your oils. If you have minor headaches, use some imagery or breathing or a short walk away from your desk. If you have major headaches that often, please see a doctor.

    1. Purple Dragon*

      I’m one of the people who gets migraines from some essential oils (one called Stress in particular). It’s a fairly common reaction to get headaches/migraines from essential oils.

      Maybe the only reason the Admin hasn’t said something stronger is because she is new ? In our office someone would have complained to HR already (probably me).

      Try other things instead – I like Jeanne’s suggestions, especially about getting it checked with a doctor.

        1. Purple Dragon*

          Hi Jen, it really does Depend on the person/situation. If I knew them I’d probably talk to them directly. If they were someone new and depending on the department they were in it could have political type ramifications. A couple of years ago it would never have crossed my mind to go to HR, but people have had perfectly reasonable requests (such as “please don’t whistle in the office as it’s distracting and the customers on the phone can hear”) blow up in peoples faces and they’ve ended up being hauled into HR themselves. There was even an instance where someone asked a person in another department to do something (that was their job) and because the request interrupted her from updating Facebook she complained and the requester was told she could only email her. FB status updates is not part of anyone’s job.

          It’s become a bit of a land mine to say anything. I’m hoping with the change in Operations Manager things will go back to being reasonable and sane :)

          Although HR are pretty much most of the problem themselves ! Hopefully the nightmare in charge of HR, who is out on maternity leave for 12 months, decides not to come back. That would make my year :)

          1. Under the Radar*

            I work in one of those types of offices. It feels like you can’t ask a question or bring up an issue without it becoming a nightmare. The sad thing is, it hasn’t always been this way. There were some major shuffles and financial cutbacks, and now people seem to have forgotten how to behave like humans. Every complaint becomes a formal complaint. If this were happening at my job and the admin tried to ask the OP directly to stop using the oils, there’s a good chance that no matter how nice she was about it, bosses would end up involved and it would become a massive to do. The ripple is that the admin tries to avoid the blowback on her (because it causes trouble to just ask someone for what you want) by asking her boss to ask OP’s boss to please ask OP to stop, which results in…bosses getting involved and a massive to do, plus the OP getting peeved because the admin should have just asked politely for the oils to stop in the first place instead of getting the boss involved. This inevitably results in one person or the other being required to make some kind of concession (usually one that creates extra work for themselves) to appease one of the bosses. It’s no win-so the admin makes passive aggressive comments and the OP (who appears to be perfectly agreeable to not using the oils but doesn’t want to if it’s not necessary) is left wondering why the admin is being so snippy lately. I suck at politics, so now apparently half of my office thinks I’m “unapproachable.” The reality is, I’m so scared of being reported for any little comment that I try to avoid any unnecessary conversation outside of my immediate area of work.

            TL;DR: if OP’s office is super political, or if it’s possible that the admin is coming from one that was, you would be helping that admin so much by just asking if she minds and following up by not being a jerk if she says it bothers her.

            Also, I am looking for a new job.

        2. Auditoholic*

          I’m going to guess that my company is in the minority here, but employees here are heavily discouraged from going to each other over issues. For example, anything that causes smells is not allowed. However, Jane brings in a heavily scented furniture polish to clean her desk. If I sat next to Jane, and said something to her about it, the result would be that I would end up in HR to have a conversation about “acting as a manger” (by telling her she’s not allowed to have a scented item) when I’m not one. The policy we follow is to report the offender to their manager or to HR and most likely HR will have the conversation. Even *managers* aren’t allowed to have conversations about dress code with their direct reports. They are required to report the offenses to HR, and then HR has the conversation. And since I know people will find this strange, this policy came about due to many, many complaints that employees were being singled out and policies weren’t being enforced fairly, so now almost everything goes through HR.

          1. Purple Dragon*

            Interesting…. I never thought of it like that. I wonder if that’s been some of the reasoning at my company but just poorly implemented. I can see how that would make sense in some situations.

            We’ve had issues of policies not being evenly applied, such as PTO (a “free” day off if the right person was bought a coffee – I’m not kidding!) so now I think I understand their reasoning better. Thanks so much Auditoholic !

          2. Juli G.*

            I’m in HR. My day is busy dealing with all the large scale stuff that is happening. I can’t imagine dealing with furniture polish pettiness as well. What a nightmare for everyone.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Yeah, both places sound like real nightmares to work at. I am thinking the actual problem is the managers. They are not following policies or not enforcing them even-handedly. Dumping it on HR makes it into a bigger headache.

          3. AvonLady Barksdale*

            That place sounds like a nightmare. Is it also “acting as a manager” if someone puts his/her arm around you and you say, “Please don’t do that”? I get the reasoning, but the solution results in everyone being treated like children. As an adult human with agency, I should be able to say, “I’m sorry, Jane, that furniture polish is really strong. Would you please give me a heads-up next time you need to use it?”

            1. Koko*

              Right? You certainly need to be sure you’re not declaring new ad hoc policies or issuing orders without any authority, but you should be able to have reasonable conversations with people without turning it into A Thing.

          4. Graciosa*

            This is really terrible – my understanding of what happened is that the policy was put in place because of poor management, so instead of coaching or removing the offending managers, all management was transferred to HR.

            Whoever made this decision is just as incompetent as whatever managers were causing the problem.

          5. Koko*

            Wow, what a great way to needlessly escalate run-of-the-mill issues into “you called the HR cops on me” conflict.

      1. Vicki*

        But here’s the thing. According to the OP, the admin “also uses this blend”.
        If she uses it, I find it difficult to imagine that the OP’s use bothers her. Perhaps she came by to commiserate or offer sympathy?

        What is this blend., by the way?

          1. Woodward*

            I love Past Tense and I’ve found it very helpful for headaches! If it’s too “strong”, consider diluting it with fractionated coconut oil and putting it in your own roller bottle so there’s less of a concentration.

            Or you can put it on your feet with a roller bottle so it gets into your bloodstream but doesn’t touch your hands and then put socks on.

            1. Deedee*

              Oh please do not add coconut oil to your smell bomb. Please, everybody who works in an open office plan or even semi-open with cubes, no scents. Just none. I am going crazy right now because one of my coworkers did a (insert popular scent name that ends in “sy”) party and the lady sitting next to me bought body lotion with a horrible smell of fake strawberries. That she applies approximately ten times a day. And she is so nice and I do not have a medical reason to complain. It just smells bad. If you need a smelly concoction because you are ill, you should maybe take some sick leave and go home and take care it. Or take some aspirin while at work and go home and use all the blends you need to make you feel better.

    2. Zillah*

      Yeah, I tend to agree. I’ve had migraines for years, so I’m sympathetic to both headaches and the appeal of more natural treatments. However, Jeanne is right – strong smells like that can trigger allergies, asthma, and even migraines for other people. I’m sure that you’re not thinking about it in those terms, OP, but I think you should keep it in mind going forward.

      I get not wanting to use aspirin, but I’d suggest either tabling your preference at work out of consideration for your coworkers or finding a less intrusive place to use your oils. Is there a bathroom, a staircase that isn’t used much, or even your car if you drive and park close to work? Or, if you feel like a headache might be coming, could you use them before you leave home?

      And yes – I also agree with Jeanne that if you’re having headaches that require treatment very often, you should talk to a doctor.

      1. Snoopy*

        Same here. I have a physical reaction (heaving/migraine/nausia) due to a bad experience nearly 5 years ago. When I worked in retail, if somebody walked passed me with the cologne on I would have to leave the shop floor…

    3. Artemesia*

      People will put up with a lot because they don’t want to complain and thus suffer in misery. I had to endure a Middle Eastern man who put on gallons of absolutely repulsive cologne for several months until he left. It is awkward for a woman to ask a Middle Eastern man to change his grooming habits and he was a visiting scholar of some status. I had an office, so I could escape there but it absolutely turned my stomach and gave me a headache if I spent time in the common spaces. And I am generally fairly assertive.

      A strong smelling essential oil simply doesn’t belong in a space where it will be easily smelled by co-workers most of whom will probably be too polite to complain but find it difficult.

      Someone not complaining does not mean it doesn’t bother them. How many times have you read something like ‘I had a dollar dance at my wedding and no one said anything, so it is okay’? How many times have you been annoyed by a neighbor’s behavior, a co-workers habits etc and said nothing?

      1. Jeanne*

        The other problem is once you complain then you get blamed. It doesn’t matter how nicely you ask, the other person blames you because now they cannot have that scent they love so much.

        I shared a space with four people. The one woman kept wearing more and more perfume until I couldn’t breathe one day. I went to my manager. She said I had to talk to her. I tried. After that she dragged me into the bosses office to tell her how horrible I was and then tried all the time to undermine me. Yes, I know it was bad management too. But in the end it wasn’t worth it. I got less fragrance but more hellishness.

        That’s why I think OP is rude. She knows she could be causing problems yet she wants to force a coworker to decide if it’s worth their job quality to ask her to stop. They don’t know if she’ll freak out.

    4. Muriel Heslop*

      I wish we could make schools fragrance-free zones – it would help my life a lot! (I’m looking at you, AXE body spray. Yuck.)

      1. Jeanne*

        Teenage boys and AXE is so disgusting. That would be solved if the teenage girls would tell them it’s icky but I’m not sure they think it’s icky. My sympathies.

        1. Koko*

          Speaking as someone who was a teenage girl when AXE first hit the market, we did tell the boys we thought it was repulsive!

          Heck, I even remember teenage boys who would mock other teenage boys for using it. “Who’s the [expletive] who brought AXE on this trip??” being shouted when it was seen in a beach house bathroom. It was very much viewed as a disgusting cover-up spray worn by dirty guys too lazy to shower. Somehow this public image has done nothing to kill the product line.

          1. Cherry Scary*

            One of the classic pranks in my middle school was “AXE Bombing” where guys would empty whole cans of the stuff in the halls. Gross.

          2. Traveler*

            Axe makes more than body spray which is why they don’t go out of business. I know I’m in the minority here, because AXE is a popular brand to hate – but honestly, some of their stuff is a lot more palatable than Old Spice and the like. They have some scents that aren’t that bad in their body washes and deodorants, and I’ve known plenty of grown men who shower frequently that use it.

            I just wish they’d stop making body sprays for men in general though.

    5. KellyK*

      So, a hypothetical person who might be bothered by the scent (but not enough to say anything) is more important to keep happy (without knowing they actually exist or are bothered) than the actual OP who actually has a headache? Really? I mean, I can see proactively asking to make sure it’s not bothering anyone and avoiding using it around them when it is, and I can see trying other things *before* you resort to something strong-smelling, but I don’t think they should automatically be expected to suffer to avoid the possibility of even mildly inconveniencing anyone else.

      Nor is “go for a walk” or “try imagery” a sure-fire solution to a headache. For that matter, what if they go to the doctor (or already have), and the doctor says, “Well, the essential oil is working; keep doing that”?

      1. Judy*

        I’m pretty sure everyone has implied going for a walk while applying the strong smelling oils. Not as a substitute, but to remove the scent from the area while also changing scenery which can reduce stress and reduce headache time. And I certainly would believe that if someone who sits 20 feet away from me can smell something I’m doing enough to comment on it, I’m not being a very good resident in cubicleville.

      2. Jeanne*

        Yes, it is more important to keep that other person healthy not “happy.” You do not have the right to make another person’s health worse. If your headaches are so bad that you need a special accomodation like an office, then it is your responsibility to ask for that. OP never said that she has a health problem or has seen a doctor, just that she prefers oils to aspirin. Preferences do not give you the right to make others miserable. A quick search produces articles on what the scent of oils can do to someone with asthma.

        All of us get that feeling at the office like our head is overloaded. Most of the time what we need is stress relief like a walk or a little cold water to the face. OP makes it sound like she is doing the oils because she likes them not because she has a migraine.

        I have used imagery for very bad headaches since I cannot take many medicines. Anyone who espouses alternative oils should be open to other alternative treatments. With proper practice, imagery can be very helpful.

      3. BlueSunday*

        The reason people are siding with the Scent Sufferer over the Essential Oil User is that the Essential Oil User has other options for dealing with his/her headache. There are other alternative treatments available to deal with headaches, including alternative medicine, Western medicine, and lifestyle changes. Meanwhile, the Scent Sufferer does not have a choice in smelling the scent. If its used at work, Scent Sufferer WILL smell it. Plus, scents can trigger headaches, asthma attacks, and other medical issues.

        1. Vicki*

          But, again, we do not KNOW that the admin as a “scent sufferer”.

          In fact, we have evidence to the contrary: She uses the oils too, so she is familiar with the blend’s smell.

          No one has complained. One person (who also uses the oils and thus, canot possibly be suffering) has commented.

        2. Traveler*

          I’m an anti-scent person, but I just wanted to chime in that you’re making kind of a big assumption here. There are not always other treatments or options. When you’ve had migraines for long enough, the (Western) medicines traditionally used to treat them start becoming ineffective either because you build up a tolerance or develop an allergy. Depending on what the source of your migraines is (which can be everything from scents to hormones to weather changes to stress) its not always something a lifestyle change can manage either.

    6. EvaR*

      It is pretty rude to use things with a strong smell at work, but people do this all the time for other things they believe to be necessary like antibacterial sprays and wipes, hand sanitizer, eating food at their desks, etc.

      We have no idea if those are common in 2’s office or not.

      I just came to say that I often will comment on other people’s smelly stuff, mostly to find out what is being used. If I can smell something strongly all of a sudden and don’t know what it is, it bothers me until I know that it’s Jane’s lotion or Jim’s glass cleaning spray or whatever. Once I’ve confirmed the source of the odor, I can get back to what I’m doing.

      1. TJ Rowe*

        I’m the same, with sounds too. If there’s a stimulus that I can’t identify, I feel panicky, but once I know what it is I can ignore it.

  3. JAL*

    #2 We apparently get a lot of complaints about scents and perfume because we got an email from HR telling us fragrances and scents are strictly prohibited in office areas. Unfortunately for me, I am triggered by food smells and we have an open kitchen in the middle of the work area.

    1. Fish Microwaver*

      I was a bit off colour today and the smell of lunches really was unpleasant. Some of the staff like to buy from a Japanese place and they heat up their miso soups which are faily pungent.

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

        Our breakroom/lunch room is in the basement of our building. I’m so glad I don’t work down there. The combined smells of everyone’s lunches can make me gag when I’m just walking through to drop off mail. Spending an appreciable amount of time down there would be horrible.

        1. JAL*

          Whatever someone just heated up, it smells like BO and is making me sick to my stomach. This is why I vow to either eat yogurt or a sandwich, or go out to lunch somewhere near by.

          1. pizzagrl*

            The thing about smells is everyone reacts to them differently. There is no smell in the world I hate more than yogurt.

            1. Koko*

              Can you smell it when you’re not directly over it, though?

              I feel you on the different reactions, though. As a child the smell of oranges made me gag, and it was torture sitting in the cafeteria surrounded by other children peeling and eating oranges. Luckily I outgrew that reaction during that young-20s period where your entire biochemistry seems to change overnight. (I call it Second Puberty–for me it came with weight gain and the emergence of a host of allergies I’d never had in childhood.)

              1. Traveler*

                I’ve known people that could smell yogurt across a room. I love the stuff but I stopped eating it around those people because of that. Depends on the type of yogurt too, I think.

    2. Michele*

      I made a Veg Curry this week. I was going to bring to work for lunch but when I realized how stinky it was I knew that there was no way I could bring it to the office. So it has turned into dinner for the week!

        1. Windchime*

          I am not allergic to curry, but it smells horrible to me, like BO or stinky feet or something. It’s not a happy day when someone heats up curry in the lunchroom (but I don’t complain because I realize it’s just me, and it doesn’t make me sick–it just smells funky.)

    3. Koko*

      The first week I was at my current job, I got some Five Guys and brought it back to my cube, and one of my new coworkers teasingly asked me, “Are we going to have a problem with Five Guys??” He was only joking and it turned out nobody minded (and we were also only in cubes as a temporary 2-month arrangement while our office was being renovated, after which we all got private offices), but being new on the job I was mortified and afraid I’d done something terribly wrong! Luckily he saw the panic reaction on my face and immediately broke face to tell me he was only joking.

  4. Ann Furthermore*

    #4: That really bites. My insurance changed at the beginning of 2014 from an awesome plan to a crappy plan that is costing me much more out of pocket over and above the payroll withholding. I feel for your situation.

    I’d talk to the benefits person though, not the board. The CEO would be unlikely to look kindly upon you contacting them directly, and it could completely backfire on you.

    1. majigail*

      I wonder if this was a board decision in the first place. It’s a significant cost savings for them…

      1. Mallory*

        If this cost would cause you to quite/leave than an anonymous note to Board might be fine.
        Boards do hear from employees, it’s not so unusual. Yeah, it sucks and is just like having your wages reduced.

        1. Monodon monoceros*

          I think Boards need to hear from employees more. Maybe they shouldn’t be bothered endlessly with complaints from employees, but they should make more of an effort to get feedback from employees. I think its not good that most (? a lot?) of Boards only hear from the CEO/ED. Situations like this are a great example. Board members might not even realise the implications of changes like this until an employee sits down and shows them how the change means that they are effectively getting a pay cut.

          1. Koko*

            A counterpoint is that day-to-day management is not the board’s job: it’s the CEO or ED’s job. The board’s job is to ensure the organization carrying out its mission. The CEO or ED’s job is to figure out the details of how to do that, including staff management and representing staff concerns to the BOD. They were put into that position specifically to do that job.

            The BOD is effectively the ED/CEO’s boss, and you don’t generally go to someone’s boss over their head unless they’re being grossly negligent or hostile to handling your concerns themselves–both because it shows disrespect for the person whose head you went over, and because it’s taking time away from the big boss’s actual higher-level duties.

            Having worked at an organization where the BOD was far too involved in the day-to-day minutia as well as an organization where the BOD had abdicated their duty to properly manage the ED/CEO, I see the pitfalls of both ends of the spectrum and wouldn’t encourage an organization to swing too far in the one direction to compensate for being too far in the other direction. Staff benefits are typically well below the level of involvement that the BOD should have.

            1. Monodon monoceros*

              I agree that swinging too far in either direction is not a good thing. I think my feeling about this is because I worked at one organisation where the Board really never heard from employees. They really only heard from the CEO, so they could never know how bad morale was there, and why everyone who had the smallest chance to leave ran away as fast as they could. I’m sure the CEO just told them what they wanted to hear, and the Board was not engaged enough to notice that the department I worked in (and which supported 70% of the operating budget) dwindled from about 30 people to about 10 people by the time I left. The CEO has no long-term vision and probably just sees this as a cost savings for now (since hardly anyone who leaves that department is replaced). The CEO and other upper management still doesn’t see that this will impact the org’s overall ability to obtain future grants.

              tl;dr My old org could have used a bit more involvement from the BOD.

        2. Colette*

          An anonymous note isn’t going to help anyone. If the OP feels strongly that she should go to the board about this (instead of to the benefits person, which I agree is the right approach), then she needs to own that.

        3. Graciosa*

          I’m with Colette on this one – if you’re going to go to the board (which I agree would be a mistake) you should take that responsibility as yourself. An anonymous note has all the credibility of its sender.

          However, I don’t believe that doing this will have any effect. The incredible breach of bypassing the CEO and going to the board directly will likely overshadow any but the most extraordinary message.

          The CEO has been embezzling donor funds? Yes, that goes to the board.

          Changes in benefits will increase the cost to employees? No, that doesn’t go to the board (and yes, they know that this increase in cost decreases take home pay- really not a surprise).

          This whole idea reflects a lack of understanding of the obligations of the board. These are generally focused on increasing shareholder value (with some compliance / legal obligations as well) – but lowering costs is not going to be perceived as a problem.

    2. GrumpyBoss*

      It also wasn’t clear from OP’s note if she’s exhausted discussing this with the CEO or not. If the plan is to leap frog the CEO to go to the board without trying to resolve this internally first, it’s tantamount to career suicide.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Very good point. It’s important to follow the appropriate channels and chains of command when considering something like this.

    3. Artemesia*

      The benefits person is a flunky who probably has no power to select the plan. The Board almost certainly mandated the lowering of benefits that this entails. Contacting the CEO might be useful — but probably not as s/he might have been the one who decided that this was the way to implement the cost cutting mandate. This is not an oversight, this is a decision to make the employees poorer and their lives more miserable in order to give the stockholders more money. I doubt the C suite lost a thing and I doubt they care at all. They know what they have done here.

      This is a vote with your feet situation. They are betting that the minions are stuck and will just have to suck it up and live with less.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is a credit union, so it’s not a stockholder situation. It’s a measure to save money, possibly in response to a real need. Credit unions are more akin to nonprofits and exist to serve their members.

        As someone else pointed out, paying 80% of dependent cost is unusually generous.

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          You’re right, it is. The plan I had before was truly superior — you really didn’t have to ever pay anything beyond the standard co-pays and payroll deductions.

          Now I’m on a nickel and dime plan with out-of-pocket maximums and all the rest of it. Truth be told it’s probably still a pretty good plan, but the other one was so great that this one seems pretty substandard by comparison.

        2. AnonAnalyst*

          Yeah, I used to have an amazing health plan when I worked for a nonprofit, and the organization paid about 80% of the monthly premiums for employees. But they definitely did not pay anywhere near that for dependents — I don’t know what exactly the breakdown was because I didn’t have any dependents, but I remember from the enrollment materials that the cost employees paid for dependent coverage was a lot higher than what they paid toward their own coverage.

      2. Colette*

        It may not be a decision made to get the stockholders more money – it might be to keep the company solvent, for example.

        The benefits person is probably not the one to select the plan – but they are the person that the CEO or board would go to if they want to know what concerns the employees have, which is why they’re the person who the OP should talk to.

  5. Dan*


    AAM, you ask about productivity, but isn’t that really none of the op’s business, even if she’s actually in a position to monitor it?

    Either way, it seems as if the op really has two choices: accept things the way they are, or quit.

    1. Chocolate Teapot*

      I understood it as needing something to be completed by one of the chatters before the OP could do their own work, which would be their concern.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s the OP’s business in the sense of understanding the culture she’s in. Is is just a chatty culture but not one where work quality/output is compromised? Or is it a culture with a management problem, where the manager is accepting lower output?

      It’s not the OP’s place to intervene either way, but if I were in her shoes, I would find that distinction particularly important. I want to know if I’m working for a crappy manager, or just in a culture with different work style preferences from me.

      1. Chris*

        I work in an office like the one described in #1. And, I agree that it is important to understand the culture. Our management likes to feel that employees are friends and seems to view those who don’t join in the chatter as suspect. We do hear about productivity from time to time in staff meetings, so perhaps another shoe will be dropping, but in the meantime, employees have incentive to chat (and be seen chatting).

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Some people actually do work faster if they are chatting all day long. It depends on the work, it depends on the people. From what I have seen, more often than not, people slow down if they are chatting, but I do know that is not the case for everyone. I am a quiet worker myself. If what I am doing is fairly light stuff, I can listen to a conversation and still maintain productivity levels. But I don’t participate in the conversation that much, even after getting used to the constant chatter. (I was surprised to learn this about myself. I never gave it any thought until I got a job with constant conversation going on.)
        And, yeah, if you are used to quiet work environments, the constant chatter is a major change. Some folks talk for the sake of talking, the quiet is too unsettling for them.
        Am not saying it’s right or wrong. Different strokes for different folks. However, OP, I would assume the boss knows there is constant talking going on, she is okay with that and I would go from there.

        1. Jillociraptor*

          This is absolutely true. I have a colleague who is really motivated by relationships, and that’s what his job is: getting people on board and building trust with others to help solve problems. Leaving him alone in a room to do something, especially a task that doesn’t affect his relationships, is torture. I learned quickly that if I needed something boring but important done (documentation for expenses, for example), he really wanted to do it, but it just drained his energy; but if I just sat with him, chatted about work, played some music, it got done no problem.

          I might feel a bit differently if this were more like the OP’s situation where it seems like nothing can get done the entire day without constant chatting–but I’m also on the far other end of the spectrum (I prefer absolute quiet or maybe music but NOT human voices). All to simply agree that talkativeness is not at all incompatible with work.

      3. Cleopatra Jones*

        I understand what you are saying, she does need to understand the office culture. However, that letter read to me like her complaint isn’t really about the chattering. It seemed like she doesn’t believe they work as hard as she does.

        I think that’s her real complaint.

        All day chattering is the easiest thing to complain about because it’s some what tangible. The tone of the letter felt like, “They can’t possibly doing as much work as I am because they talk all day.” It’s a mentality that many inexperienced people have when they enter the working working (I’m not going to lie, I’ve been guilty of this as well) because they haven’t mentally shifted from the school environment.

        IME, my work life became so much easier when I stopped worrying about what other people were doing and focused on my job, my responsibilities, and gaining skills that would put me in line for promotions.

        The thing is if they aren’t doing their work, it’s eventually going to show. If you’re working hard and gaining skills/experience, it’s going to show too. You just need to decide which side of the coin you want to show. :-)

        1. Cleopatra Jones*

          Yikes! I just re-read that last sentence and it was not a coherent thought (we’ll just chalk that up to late night/early morning brain fog :-) ).

          What I really meant to say…OP has to decide what’s important to her. Does she want to expend the energy to make them behave or invest that energy in herself gaining the necessary skills and experience.

          I recommend the latter.

    3. Missy*

      #1 I am in a shared office with endless vocal chatters too, and it drives me mad. Whether it impacts productivity is hard to say because many of the chatters have administrative work which doesn’t require much concentration (no judgment). The office is shared by admin people, professional staff, and managers. The managers don’t seem bothered by it, or just turn a blind eye so they don’t have to deal with it. I have had to adapt by wearing headphones, which I am not thrilled about but I have little choice. Occasionally I take my laptop and go and hide in an empty office if I really have to concentrate (fortunately I have this option). I have raised the issue with management, armed with documentation in the form of maps and spreadsheets about workflow and job functions. This did result in reconfiguring where people sit after about 8 months of my raising this, but telling these people to shut up will never happen. And yes, I am looking for another job. This is just one of many symptoms of the egregiously poor management here.

      1. Missy*

        I’ll just share one more thing here, and I am thinking about how Alison mentioned office culture. I have a colleague who goes around offering to make everyone coffee or tea several times a day. She is a professional person who volunteers to do this – she just wants everyone to like her IMO, and it drives me mad – I can make my own tea and I really don’t need the frequent unnecessary interruption. I hate to sound unfriendly by the way, I think I’m as friendly as the next guy but I do have work to do. I very politely told her one day “it is really so kind of you but you don’t need to offer to make my tea.” So now she goes around several times a day and offers to make coffee or tea for everyone else, which I still have to listen to, but not for me, which I suppose is what I wanted!

    4. Sam*

      It could be the OP’s business, depending on the nature of the work. If the team needs to produce 100 teapots per week, and half the team spends all day chatting, the OP is picking up the slack and doing more than the OP’s “fair share” of the work. While this might pay off over time in recognition and promotions, it can be tough on morale of the OP feels like he or she is doing all the work while everyone else is goofing off all day.

  6. PK*

    #2: As you know yourself, because they help you with your migraines so much, essential oils aren’t just a smell (if any fragrance could be brushed off as such) but can have very real impacts on the brain and/or immune function. This means that while they might help you, they could cause someone with an autoimmune disease to react (or even someone without).

    It sounds like your co-worker is trying to hint that it does bother her (although admittedly it might not if she also uses them), and you sort of brushed her off more than you intended to, because obviously you care enough that you’ve been thinking about that conversation and wrote in the letter. But yeah, ask and apologize if it did bother her– and maybe there’s a useable space in your office that is completely enclosed, and you could do a 15 min break/treatment there?

    1. SJP*

      Although OP2 I also think that it’s more than likely that the admin will respond when asked if it bothers her with “oh not that much, a bit” but actually it probably really bothers her, cause when people are actually asked, they can be very ‘put on the spot’ and be too polite to say that it does bother them.

      I used to be and it took me a while to finally feel confident enough to say “Actually yes it does bother me, sorry but can you not use it” because a lot of people don’t like conflict so will say it doesn’t bother them, when it does

      1. NoPantsFridays*

        Yep, this was my concern. Even when asked directly, she’s unlikely to say it’s bothering her. That said, if the OP could have a solution in mind and include that in the question, it might be better. e.g. “If it’s bothering you, I can go to this office/spare conference room/bathroom/car/etc.” I think that makes it easier to say, “yeah, it does bother me, sorry but could you go to the spare office/etc.?”

    2. Lonny*

      My mom uses essential oils to treat her headaches and she doesn’t realize how strong the smell is because she gets used to it (and she really lays it on thick). Believe your coworker when they say they can smell it all the way at their desk. That stuff can be quite pungent. All of the previous comments made regarding the fact that people may not tell you how much it bothers them in an effort to be polite.

  7. SJP*

    OP2 – Im with a lot of commenters here who’ve posted above.. As PK mentioned, you must already be aware of the impact on the brain and body and I think it’s absolutely right, she is trying to hint to you that it’s bothering her/and probably others and you (it seems to me) brushed her off more than you should have. Like you mentioned, she’s new and probably afraid to ruffle feathers (as it were)
    To be honest strong smells in offices are a no-no/bothersome to a lot of people and, no offence, but I do feel a bit that you’re being a sit selfish by using them in the office. You mentioned you know they smell strongly, that the admin can smell them 2o feet away (!!) and you’re still trying to brush it off as socially acceptable and it’s not really..

    If you really have to use them, can you not step away into a bathroom or quiet room with a window open for a while until you headache has gone, or even better perhaps a walk outside where you can use the oils but they won’t be too strong to smell due to the fresh air. Or really, not use them in the office at all and leave them til you’re home..

    I know I am a little abrupt here but strong smells are a massive pet peeve of a lot of people be it oils, perfume, food, body odours etc and more people need to be aware of how much it’s disliked by the majority

    1. dragonzflame*

      I also think it’s a pretty clear hint – really, any comment other than, ‘gosh, that oil smells nice’ suggests to me it bugs her, or she wouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.

      1. OP #2*

        I don’t think that’s actually the case. She’s pretty chatty, so I think it truly could be her just trying to make conversation. I’ll talk to her about it to make sure that that’s actually the case.

    2. Fish Microwaver*

      One of my colleagues brought in an automotive lubricating spray to use on a squeaky door last week. The smell gave me a migraine and I had a hell of a job finding out 1) what the odour was and 2) who had sprayed it and why. It was very inconsiderate and unpleasant. I thought I was going to be that person vomiting in the waste basket.

      1. Sarahnova*

        To be fair, something I’ve learned from AAM is how many people are bothered by strong smells, and how profoundly. I don’t love them, but my interpretation of your coworker’s action would be “yay, someone tackled the squeaky door”; it wouldn’t occur to me that the smell would bother anyone to a migrainous extent, because that’s not something I experience, or have previously heard people talk about.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          Me too. Personally, the squeaky door would drive me way more nuts than the oil smell. It probably wouldn’t occur to me that anyone would be bothered by it.

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, around here the other option would be having maintenance do it with something more hard-core. There isn’t a “no hinge repair” option.

            1. HeyNonnyNonny*

              You can actually also fix squeaky hinges by rubbing a crayon all over the pin. Granted, removing the pin is more involved than just spraying the hinge, but hey, the more you know.

        2. Natalie*

          These kinds of sensitivities are often either a total fluke (i.e. I’m usually fine but floor wax or whatever bothers me) or one person who has a lot of sensitivities. From a maintenance perspective, it’s really not realistic for us to avoid all odor causing compounds – tons of stuff isn’t available odor-free and we still have to repair things. Emergencies excepted, our maintenance people work standard day hours.

          Provide the smell isn’t going to be a regular feature of the environment, like a co-workers perfume, it’s ideal IMO for the employee affected by the smell to just be allowed to go home.

      2. MK*

        It wax inconsiderate and unpleasant of your coworker to voluntarily repair something in your workplace? That’s really out of line, I think. Most maintanance requires the use of smelly products; perhaps he was a bit thoughtless, if the one he used was so much more strong that the average.

        1. BethRA*


          Seriously, I get the smell sensitivity. I get migraines, too, and when I do the smell of my own deodorant can make me feel ill (I once stayed at the office despite a debilitating migraine, because I couldn’t bear the thought of the motions and smell of the ride home). But I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to expect everyone else to know my sensitivities. I think it’s on me to speak up if necessary. It’s easy enough to say “hey, thanks for fixing the teapot, but the smell of the glue was a bit much for me. Could you use something less stinky/do the gluing next time?”

    3. Chloe Silverado*

      Agreed that going into an empty conference room, taking a walk or sitting in the car (if the OP drives to work) might be a good solution. This would also allow the OP to get away from the fluorescent lights, computer screen and buzz of the office which might help the headache go away – I know sometimes if I have a headache, taking a walk or sitting in my car with my eyes closed for 10-15 minutes helps without any kind of traditional or nontraditional medicines. Not everyone may have this flexibility at their job, but if the OP does that may be a good option.

      1. kozinskey*

        I like the idea of taking a walk or taking a 15-min break in the car to handle a headache. I sympathize with OP because migraines are terrible, but strong smells like perfumes & oils give me headaches and nausea, and I don’t think they’re appropriate for the office. I think getting away from the office would be a huge help and OP’s coworkers would appreciate it.

      2. JMegan*

        I don’t love the conference room idea, because then the smell of the oils will linger in the conference room, which is likely a more enclosed space than the OP’s (presumed) cubicle farm. So instead of the admin smelling them, now it’s the next people to come into the conference room for a meeting.

        Best bet is to do it outside, or at home. I’ve posted before about coming from a culture of scent-free workplaces, which I realize is not everyone’s norm, but it seems pretty clear here that the scent of the oils is impacting at least one other person in the office.

    4. Jean*

      Going into an empty enclosed space to relieve the stress of a headache is a good idea, but if the essential oils are used in this area it will be difficult to disperse the scent later. Also conference rooms are likely to have fabric-covered chairs or carpeting that can retain the smell. It’s not fun to defer a private meeting because someone gets ambushed by fragrance in the environment.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I like to alternative treatments as much as possible. I love, love, love that OP is doing something alternatively to help herself.

      That being said, if a scent is a health treatment and you wear that scent to work, then that treatment is being shared by a captive audience. They cannot avoid smelling that scent. Not every alternative treatment plan is appropriate for every person. Additionally, not every person wants to be a “beneficiary” of one person’s therapy. It’s not fair to other people.

      OP, look at it this way. You are choosing this method of treatment and you are prepared for whatever outcomes you get. The people around you are not. If they have a strong reaction to the scent, they have no control over stopping the source of their reaction. In short: If you feel you have to ask if a scent is bothering people, the answer is probably yes.

      I am saying this as a person who is hugely in favor of alternative therapies when ever possible.
      Most of the alternative practitioners I go to have signs in their offices “no fragrances”. That is because fragrances impact so many people and in so many ways.

  8. Ann Furthermore*

    #2: I’m a person who is not really bothered by smells and in the past I’ve kind of internally rolled my eyes at people who complain about them, ready to write them off as high maintenance, delicate flowers. But there have been many discussions here about how bothersome they can be to some people, to the point of causing allergic reactions, migraines, and other problems. It’s been educational to say the least.

    If you’re using something that someone else can smell 20 feet away, whatever it is must have an overpowering scent and it’s reasonable to assume that someone is going to find it unpleasant or even debilitating. I think your co-worker was trying to politely tell you that the smell of your oils bothers her, and was expecting you to say, “Oh I’m sorry, does it bother you?” instead of, “Well, I guess you’ll know whenever I have a headache!” so that *she* could say, “Actually, yes it does.” Quite honestly your response sounds a little oblivious, even though I’m sure that’s not what your intent was.

    1. Kyrielle*

      This – although the beauty is, you can blame it on the headache when you re-approach it, if that makes it more comfortable for you (and honestly, it’s probably true).

      “I’m sorry – I wasn’t thinking very clearly either time because of my headache, but I’ve realized now that the smell of my oils was probably bothering you. Is that the case? Because I can change my routine if it’s causing a problem.”

      Something like that. (And I think the last line is key, said in a friendly cheerful tone, because it greatly lowers the odds that she’ll say “oh, no, it’s fine” when she doesn’t mean it – because it makes it clear that you are willing to adapt, and that it’s okay to say she wants or needs you to.)

    1. Cautionary tail*


      I love the name you chose for AAM.

      That said, with respect to the topic, I am one of those people who cannot smell anything, as in there is no discernible difference between light or heavy smells, fruity or floral, etc. BUT! I go into nonstop sneezing fits around perfume of any kind, hairspray, air freshener, etc. I have pissed off many a lady who walked in all proud of their smells whereupon I instantly started gagging and sneezing and asked them to leave.

      So my advice is that if the OP needs to put smelly stuff on and already knows it bothers people at least 20 feet away, then just leave till the smell goes away, albeit in a conference room with a window, or outside the building. And then wash the cr*p off before you come back to the office space.

  9. Cool Beans*

    #2 You mentioned she uses the oils too. Maybe it’s a scent association for her (oils=headaches). She may not like the smell because she’s already associated it with pain.

    Also, if she uses them, she knows how strong they can smell so she might be trying to do you a favor.

    I like the idea above of using it outside, it will also help you get out of the office and take a breather from work.

  10. cake batter*

    In my first Big Job, I was oblivious to the fact that other folks weren’t as clean freaky as I am and wouldn’t appreciate the entire (shared 4-cube) office scrubbed down with lysol and spritzed with febreeze. After one guy literally ran out of the office coughing, I learned the hard way that 1) it’s best to clean after hours when others won’t be bothered by the smell, and 2) not everyone loves the smell of cleaning products like I do!

    1. Clever Name*

      I had a 20 min sneezing fit one morning because a coworker had doused the office with Lysol the prior evening. That was fun.

  11. Andrea*

    OP #1, have you tried earplugs? I hate wearing headphones and I don’t even like earbuds, but I have some of those heavy-duty earplugs that I use a lot. Even just the foam ones that you twist and then allow to expand inside your ear might offer you more quiet. Often I can still hear things, but it’s muted enough so that I can still focus. Check drugstores and even hardware stores (they have the really hardcore ones there, I’ve noticed). When people notice, just say that you have a hard time concentrating without them because your ears are really sensitive. As long as you aren’t all, “well, you talk all day about nothing and I’d actually like to get some work done, so…” about it, then no one will take offense or anything.

    Because I do sympathize with you, and I have sensitive hearing, too, but it sounds like these chatty coworkers are behaving in a way that’s acceptable for that workplace. It would bother me, too, but I think your best bet is to find a workaround. Or a new job, if in fact this issue is a management one.

    1. Missy*

      The problem with headphones or earplugs is the same. You are blocking yourself off to sounds that you DO potentially need to hear (e.g. phone ringing, person speaking “appropriately”, delivery person knocking) and it also creates a psychological barrier where you appear to be closed off socially. It’s true that it may help, but it does not solve the problem. And I disagree that endless chatter and smalltalk in a shared space with people who need to concentrate, especially in (arguably) too-loud voices, which is true in my case, is acceptable for the workplace.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Actually earplugs don’t completely drown out everything. My husband snores like nobody’s business and after we got married I had to use earplugs for awhile at night. They muffled the sound of his snoring enough for me to be able to sleep, but I was still able to hear my alarm go off in the morning. I also use them when we go camping. The heater in our trailer is very noisy, but the earplugs block most of the sound but I can still hear my daughter if she needs anything.

      2. Ann Furthermore*

        Although I do agree with you about the endless chit chat. That would drive me insane. There’s a little in my office, usually in the mornings and at lunch, but then it quiets down.

      3. Allison*

        What if OP used them sometimes, when they had something really important to work on that needed their full attention, and they gave people a heads up beforehand, so people know in case they need to get the OP’s attention for whatever reason. I’ve never found earplugs or headphones to be rude in the office, some people need to be closed off now and then.

      4. Jennifer*

        Yeah, I use headphones at work but I HAVE to keep the sound down in case someone starts talking to me from behind and I’m supposed to know about it (5-10 times a day). I can’t really do anything to shut out the chatting, loud radio, and SINGING going on behind me….and that’s even when we’re not forced to answer the phones.

        I hear ya on the established culture, but everyone will haaaaaaaaaaate you if you complain, so I don’t.

    2. GigglyPuff*

      I’d like to add also, cause I rarely see this brought up when earplugs are mentioned. For some people they hurt, like for me. I can wear them infrequently, but if I had to wear them constantly, even the soft ones, they completely make my ears raw and sore. Went on a two week trip with my dad, dear lord the snoring sounds at night!, after about 8 days my ears were dry, red, and hurt.

      Which it also took me a long time to find headphones I could wear all day at work that didn’t do the same thing, even over the ear ones hurt after a few hours because of my glasses.

  12. Allison*

    #2 I’ve never worked in an office where scented stuff was banned, and I’m quite fond of my scented lotions and hand sanitizers. That said, whenever I use them around someone new I make sure to ask if it’s too strong, and invite them to let me know if anything I use is overpowering. When anyone not in my immediate vicinity passes by and makes a comment about my lotion, even something like “it smells good over here!” I ask if it’s too strong, because I sometimes worry that a compliment is really someone’s way of letting me know they’ve noticed something negative.

    That said, it’s possible your co-worker, while slightly bothered by the smell, might not feel right telling you not to use the oils since they have medical benefits. It’s one thing to be bothered when someone sprays perfume in the office, or burns a candle, or does anything else that produces a smell for smell’s sake; but you’re trying to get rid of a headache, and she may be trying to be sensitive to that, especially since you only do it 1-2 times a month.

    1. GigglyPuff*

      That’s what I was going to say, if you explain to people what it is for (if it’s only bothering them, not causing bigger problems), since it is so infrequent, they would understand better, I know I would.

      1. Zillah*

        See, I wouldn’t call 1-2 times a month infrequent at all.

        I get migraines, and I’ve recently developed really bad allergies/asthma that can be triggered by smells. If this smell triggered me, that would be once every two weeks I had to deal with a bad reaction because of the OP. I’m definitely not going to be super productive with that, and it might require me to leave early. (There are smells that would absolutely cause that strong a reaction.) Once every two weeks is way too often for that, especially since it’s not like I never have reactions to other triggers. I don’t have that time and energy.

        Now, most people don’t have reactions as strong as mine, and since I do, I would likely say something. But not everyone else is comfortable doing that, and even with a less serious reaction, once every two weeks is too often when it’s so easily avoidable.

        1. Judy*

          I would certainly call 1-2 migraines a month frequent. I had 5-6 a year and that was too much. My co-workers knew if they saw a MtDew on my desk to beware (I chased excedrin with MtDew, my only caffeine and soda I drink.) Now that I’m not taking BC, I only have 1 or 2 a year.

          1. Allison*

            You’re right, 1-2 migraines a month is frequent. I was referring to the smell itself, not necessarily the affects. We don’t know if OP’s co-worker has been having physical reactions, if that is the case then yes, even 1-2 times a month is bad. We can acknowledge that that may be the case, but we don’t know how badly the smell is affecting her so I don’t know why everyone is assuming she’s having migraines. Just smelling something strong for a few hours a couple times a month, to me, isn’t frequent.

    2. Nina*

      This is a good point. IMO, it’s a big difference when someone is using it for a medicinal purpose as opposed to an aesthetic one, so I feel bad for the OP. I’m not that familiar with essential oils; does the smell linger for a long time after applying? I would suggest the OP put it on while she’s in her car, or outside, where the smell can dissipate a little?

  13. illini02*

    #1 It really just comes down to work styles. Just about every office I’ve worked in was a chatty one. They have also been very productive. I understand that this doesn’t work for everyone, however this appears to be your problem, not the co-workers problem. Essentially they existed fine working that way before you came along, they shouldn’t have to adapt because it drives you crazy. You don’t want to wear headphones? So essentially you don’t think your preferences should outweigh those of the others? I think this is just a case where you may need to just suck it up and learn to deal or find a new job more suited to how you like to work.

  14. Swarley*


    In addition to everything that Alison said, the board and your CEO already know that this will have a negative impact on the employees. I’m certain it was a factor in their decision, but unfortunately it wasn’t a big enough factor.

    1. Artemesia*

      I am deeply cynical I know but I suspect this was a feature not a bug. I know of a company that denied bonuses offered if a profit target was hit when they instead gave a huge bonus to a new CEO that reduced the ‘profit’ below the target. The team had in fact reached the goal of generating the income but they took it and gave it to a new CEO and thus ‘lowered the profit’ below the target where they had promised worker bonuses. It is the norm in many companies that all the goodies go to the top and the people who do the work get progressively strangled as they are here. The CEO doesn’t care and the board probably thinks they get what they deserve which is as little as the traffic will bear.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That is indeed deeply cynical! This is a credit union, not a company serving stockholders. It’s entirely possible that this was a reasonable move to make, in response to a real need to cut costs. (And the original plan that they cut back on was unusually generous.)

      2. LBK*

        What company is this? I swear I just heard this story recently, maybe you made a similar comment on another post?

        At any rate, yeah, that’s super cynical. Even companies with stockholders aren’t all evil money grubbers who just want to fatten up the pockets of the CEO and screw everyone else. Working with that framing in your mind sounds like it would be pretty much impossible to feel happy at any place that wasn’t a nonprofit.

  15. HR Manager*

    #1 – Can you ask your boss if your seat can be moved to a less central location? If that is unusual, or a highly coveted spot, then it may not be an option, but I think it’s ok to at least ask. I wouldn’t frame it as your chatty coworkers talk too much and get no work done, but that it’s an adjustment for you to be in an open space, and a quieter spot is more conducive for you. If that is turned down, can you ask if headphones are permitted so that you can listen to a little music to tune out the background noise?

    I’ve worked in open offices (even for HR) and it was common to see occasional headphones pop out. For me, I can’t have them on all the time, but for times to focus it was extremely helpful and was ok.

    #2 – Thank you for the OPs consideration, because I too am sensitive to strong smells. I don’t get migraines but my sinuses clog up and start to run with strong odors, and it makes me miserable . In these occasions, deferring to politeness can’t hurt.

    #3 – Yikes, I would never go to the board with my complaints. I think it’s fair for your executive mgmt team including head of HR to hear of how big of an impact this is, but going to the board is too much. I wouldn’t go to the board even if I disliked the CEO, unless my concerns were re: unethical or illegal behavior.

  16. Mena*

    Allergic reactions to strong smells are not uncommon and you’re aware these oils have a noticeable scent but seem rather casual as to how they affect those around you, which is surprising. Your co-worker gently made you aware that the smell of the oils is noticeable; the response of ‘I guess you’ll know when I have a headache’ suggests that her feedback went right over your head. If she’s commenting on the smell I think you can assume that the smell is, at the very least, a distraction in the office. It is unfortunate that you’re challenged with these headaches but your solution to them cannot distract the office.

  17. TubbyTheHut*

    #4 I work for a non-profit with a Board of Directors. A decision like this is usually decided by the Board. The CEO and staff may present options and recommendations. And paying 80% of the premium for dependent coverage is way outside the norm now. They probably took that into consideration when making the decision.

    1. LBK*

      Yeah, that was my thought as well – the board probably knows about this already because they probably approved it.

  18. Cindi*

    #2 The person who sits in the cube on the other side of me (I don’t see her and don’t work with her, but she’s probably sitting about 3 feet from me with just a wall separating us) uses some kind of lotion every morning. The first time I smelled it I thought that my cat had peed on something I was wearing and I was smelling everything and thinking how I could run home and change. Then I realized where it was coming from.

    It’s an awful smell. I can’t imagine she thinks it smells good. Thankfully it doesn’t linger. So I usually walk away for a few minutes until it dissipates.

    Yeah, I know, I’m chicken and don’t say anything. But she’s very pregnant and will be going out on leave soon. So at least my problem goes away for a while.

    1. Swarley*

      Meh, I don’t think you’re a chicken for not saying anything. Maybe the lotion has some sort of health benefit for her… If the smell doesn’t linger I’d probably let it go too.

    2. Artemesia*

      Sounds like something like amalactin which is excellent for dry skin, but has a strong pee smell when first applied; I think it actually has uric acid in it. No one should be applying it in public.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Was just going to say, it’s probably Amlactin– that stuff is gross, but it’s excellent, and I would bet your co-worker waits until she’s at her desk because she’s no longer outside (dry, cold air used to aggravate my mild eczema, which is why I had to use that vile stuff) and she won’t be washing her hands for a while. Either way, while I sympathize, I think you’re doing the right thing by waiting until it dissipates. I see lingering smells as totally different than brief smells– my boyfriend uses a hand sanitizer that smells like watermelon, which sounds awesome but is totally jarring when you’re in, say, a pizza place. I can handle it until it dissipates. Lingering scents? No thank you.

      1. Formica Dinette*

        Wow, I use Amlactin during the winter and have never noticed the pee smell. I’ll be sure not to bring it to work this winter.

  19. Jane*

    #1: I work in an office like that and the chatty culture is one of the reasons I love coming to work because I get to form great bonds and friendships with my co-workers. As long as our work is completed, we are free to get up and stretch our legs and go have a chat to someone for 5 minutes. Since we all want the system to stay and don’t want to lose the privileges of a laid back culture, we make sure our work gets done and are reasonable about it.

    I’d be very upset if a new hire came in and went and complained to HR about us and we had to stop chatting because she didn’t want to wear headphones and we became another ‘heads down and shut up’ job. In fact, you’d be my least favourite person on the planet. As the new hire, if you don’t like the culture, it’s not your place to change it. Either adapt to it or find a new job.

    1. Jen RO*

      I agree with you. I work in a very chatty department and it’s one of the things that make me happy to come to work!

  20. Stel*

    I’m the OP for #3, thanks for the response. My husband is currently looking for positions at the manager level.

    Does anyone have any tips on how to ask for a sign-on bonus?

    1. HR Manager*

      When this gets to the final rounds, HR/hiring manager is bound to ask compensation questions. You should present your desired salary range and note that you have an unusual situation. Explain situation and tell them about the company’s practice of your having to pay back the amount from your leave. Do your homework and present the number you think you need and let them react to that. It could be no chance, or I have to look into this, and they come back with no, agree or a compromise solution (assuming you are getting an offer).

    2. Traveller*

      The other option could be to negotiate a start date that coincides with the expiry of the 3 month “return to work” term. He’s only got 19 weeks until this becomes a moot point (7 weeks left in the 12 week leave + 12 weeks of “return to work”). Seems like a long time now, but if he is just starting looking for work & it takes a while to get through the recruitment process, there’s a reasonably high probability that he might only have to defer his start date by a month or something to be totally clean with the current employer.

      I know that doesn’t help with the “get me out of here now” sentiment that comes with searching for work, but could be something that is easier to negotiate with the new employer than a signing bonus (which you wouldn’t get to enjoy anyways!)

  21. Formica Dinette*

    OP#2: I agree with Alison’s advice about talking with your co-worker.

    I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds with suggestions for work-friendly alternatives to aspirin, but I have migraines and have successfully used these at work to mitigate the brain pain: acupressure, turning down the brightness and contrast on my monitors, and an ice pack on the back of my neck (held in place with a scarf). I’m lucky enough to have an office with a window, so I’ve also closed the blinds, as well as shut my door and lain down with an ice pack over my eyes. I suppose you could do the lying-down-with-an-icepack thing in a conference room.

    Anyway, there’s my unsolicited 2 cents. Good luck!

  22. LadyTL*

    OP#2 As a heads up, since you mentioned she uses the oils too, there can be a massive difference in effect when quantity of oil is used. She may just use barely a drop but if you use more then it may bother her the difference in strength. Also essential oils react different to each person’s body chemistry. What smells nice on one person may smell awful on another to other people.

  23. Just Visiting*

    A bit late to the party, but I can sympathize with OP#1 (although I agree there’s nothing she can do aside from wearing headphones or leaving). When you’re an extreme introvert who works every day with mega-talkers, it does wear on you. I’ve found myself targeted, usually in a friendly way, but it does get old when people say things like “oh, Just Visiting, you talk too much!” or ask if you don’t like them because you’re not talking. I can make small talk all right, but not for hours on end. And headphones usually don’t cancel out conversation unless they’re noise-canceling ones and there’s good reasons not to want to wear noise-canceling headphones. All I gotta say is, I feel for you, OP#1.

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