employee treats coworkers as if they stink

A reader writes:

I work with a group of people who are public-facing in a building (retail/public service type environment) and we rotate people on different desks on a set schedule throughout the day. I have a few coworkers who are sensitive to fragrances, and our policy was recently updated to be a “fragrance-reasonable” workplace. Our policy says that because employees and visitors may have sensitivity or allergic reactions to various fragrant products, employees should refrain from using heavily scented products.

For a couple of our coworkers who had been in the habit of using scented lotions, etc., this was a change, but overall people have been trying to be responsive to sensitivities, and we have addressed issues directly as required.

My issue is the reaction of one employee to the smells of others. I do believe they are still smelling odors from others, even though no other coworkers are able to smell anything. But their reactions to these smells are unprofessional and I want to address it directly with them. (I supervise their supervisor, so it would be appropriate for me.) This person will physically cover their mouth and nose in the elevator with other people, or fan the air vigorously with a folder when transitioning to a desk that a “smelly” person has been sitting at (that other coworkers can’t smell anything from). I had thought that the policy clarification on personal scents and our direct discussions had solved this, but just received a verbal report that these behaviors continue. This is understandably hurtful to these coworkers.

I’m trying to determine a good way to ensure I address this person’s sensitivity concerns, while also making it clear how these behaviors are unacceptable, and to set reasonable behavior expectations. (It feels weird to think of saying, “Don’t cover your nose and mouth like a child when your coworkers step into the elevator,” but do I need to be on that level? Can I “police” someone’s reactions on that level?) I believe we have done the work of ensuring reasonable compliance with the policy. Any specific language and approach you can give would be appreciated!

Yeah, they can’t be rude to coworkers.

If they’re continuing to have issues with fragrances beyond what your policy covers, there needs to be a bigger conversation about how to solve that. Would it help if they wore a mask? Do they need a dedicated workspace that no one else uses? A fan set up at any space they’re going to work in? Is the problem severe enough that they should be working remotely, if that’s possible for their job?

Those are all reasonable solutions they (and you) should consider. Visibly communicating “you stink” to coworkers is not.

That’s the conversation I’d suggest having with them. Take them at face value that fragrances continue to be an issue for them, and tell them that their current method of addressing it isn’t an option so let’s figure out what you and they can do.

If they’re not open to trying any of those solutions — or if they try them but the behavior continues — then the conversation is, “This is what our policy is. If there are specific accommodations you can propose that will help you work more comfortably, I need you to raise them with me so we can try to resolve this. But you cannot continue behaviors like X and Y.”

(But also, since you work in a public-facing environment, I’m curious whether this employee is doing this around patrons too, or only around coworkers. It sounds like it’s only happening around coworkers, which would be pretty pointed … and, presumably, controllable on the employee’s end.)

{ 363 comments… read them below }

  1. I should really pick a name*

    Is this coworker maybe dramatically protesting the new fragrance policy?
    Suggesting that everyone stinks now that they don’t use fragrances?

    Doesn’t affect anything, just trying to make sense of the behaviour.

    1. RIP Pillowfort*

      Sometimes people have an outsized reaction. My mom does this. She will visibly gag, make faces, etc.

      She’s not as sensitive to smells as I am (I get migraines from certain things) but if she doesn’t like something’s scent- she just acts like it’s the worst thing ever. I love her but she doesn’t get how rude that is to react that way to a person.

      1. PNut Gallery*

        I’m sensitive to certain scents, can’t smell others at all. But there’s an ingredient in some perfumes that makes me gag involuntarily if it’s too fresh or too much, gives me an instant headache, makes my throat feel scratchy like I can’t breathe, and (to me) literally smells like a mouldy 70s basement where someone spilled an entire bottle of their grandmother’s rancid perfume – and I don’t know which ingredient it is and can’t just randomly ask all people what perfume they’re wearing to be able to compile a list and cross-refence. I can try my best to control my reactions, but I can’t force myself to stay in the vicinity of someone wearing it unless I want to be incapacitated for the day.

        Thankfully I don’t work with the public and do work from home, but if I appear rude to someone at like, a grocery store or the mall by having to move away from them suddenly or cover my mouth and nose, I’d rather be rude than literally heave on them and risk throwing up or having to go home to lay down all day.

        1. Zelda*

          I betcha people around you can generally tell the difference between you focusing on doing what you need to to protect yourself/remove yourself from situations that are not good for you while some expression happens to leak out onto your face vs someone who is focusing on making sure their body language and expression make as much of a demonstration as possible of how they are suffering, do you hear me, *suffering* from all the *gross* people!!111!eleven!

          1. Temperance*

            I very much doubt that. I’ve been accused of fake coughing around smokers even when it’s involuntary and *I* move, even though they have entered my space.

            1. Zelda*

              There are also passive-aggressive people on the other side performatively taking umbrage (“Oh, I guess my baby is *disgusting* now!” comes to mind). This sort of person gets even worse if they are conscious of being in the wrong. And of course there are some genuine misunderstandings, but if you think about all the people who *didn’t* accuse you of fake coughing– well, I think most people can tell, even if they then don’t handle it well.

              1. Lydia*

                I know someone who does this, and it is obnoxious. We get he thinks cigarette smoke is stinky, but his over exaggeration reactions to someone smoking on the street isn’t cute or at all getting the point across. The people smoking don’t see him waving his hand in front of his face or coughing loudly, only his friends do, and we all think he’s being obnoxious.

                1. Ess Ess*

                  There have been times that I have needed to wave my hand in front of my face when someone outside is smoking. If I don’t do that, I am getting a full lung-full of their smoke cloud when I inhale. I am an asthmatic and when someone is walking along in front of me puffing, I can’t afford to keep breathing entire clouds of their smoke. I need to wave to diffuse it (as I slow down to try to put more distance between them and me). Or sometimes I need to cough to get the smoke/irritant out of my lungs as I feel my lungs start to seize up with the inhale of smoke. I’m sorry, but hurting someone’s “feelings” don’t trump my need to avoid the emergency room by removing the asthma trigger quickly.

                2. Claire*

                  I often wave my hand in front of my face when I walk by a smoker. It has nothing to do with trying to communicate a message to them, and everything to do with not wanting to breathe or smell their toxic smoke.

                3. Ellen N.*

                  Some of us, myself included, cough when we smell cigarette smoke. It’s not performative.

                  I had a client who was a heavy smoker. I would cough and gag when I opened mail from her as the smoke smell was strong.

                  I was alone in my office, so I can’t be accused of overreacting for an audience.

                4. DJ Abbott*

                  I’m terribly allergic to cigarettes, so I have to wave the smoke away from my face. Most public areas where I live are smoke free and I don’t deliberately or knowingly go around smokers. So if a random smoker takes offense to my waving their smoke away, it’s on them for smoking in a place they’re not supposed to.
                  I’ll go to lengths to avoid breathing the smoke of someone ahead of me on the sidewalk, so I won’t get sick. I’ve walked in the street or walked on the opposite side of the walk, or crossed the street. All are better options than the illness I get from tobacco smoke.

                5. Hrodvitnir*

                  Yep. I have asthma (albeit mild), and cigarette smoke makes my throat constrict. I suspect it’s a mix of physiological and a psychological association, but it is what it is.

                  I hold my breath, and put my top over my face if I have to tolerate it for too long. (I’m talking at distance – obviously I move away where possible). If I had a mask I would wear one, but that’s wildly variable and pre-COVID of course not.

                  IMO performative coughing and actual coughing are pretty clearly different.

                6. Starbuck*

                  Your friend is right though, cigarette smoke is really stinky. And I often find myself smelling it in places where smokers aren’t meant to be anyway, like near doorways as I’m exiting buildings. It’s gross and I do react to it!

            2. Observer*

              I’ve been accused of fake coughing around smokers even when it’s involuntary and *I* move, even though they have entered my space.

              Yes, well that accusation sounds like something the LW’s coworker might lob.

              *Reasonable* people, which the LW describes *most* of the staff being, can tell the difference between someone who Coughs and has Dramatic Reactions to smoke or who does as this employee does and makes a big production vs someone who just coughs or even involuntarily gags and explains that they have a sensitivity without dramatics (or calling someone smelly).

              In my experience, smokers tend to be quite unreasonable about this stuff. Yes, absolutely not all smokers, but it’s a really strong tendency.

              1. DJ Abbott*

                I’ve I had mostly good results by explaining I’m terribly allergic and asking people not to smoke – in a place they know they’re not supposed to. There are a few unreasonable ones.

            3. Tabihabibi*

              Yeah, as a fellow scent sensitive person (cough-type asthma, but sometimes also headaches or dizziness depending on whatever it might be) I can vouch that people are often dismissive as heck. My last HR person took great glee in, uh, telling me a long story about supposedly “catching” an entire team (??) “faking” a reaction to a cleaning agent because people were taking prudent steps to avoid exposure by leaving when they saw the spray, before it was sprayed in their area. This employee isn’t handling it in the mature manner expected in the office setting, but “scent responsible” also sounds like an overly vague half-measure versus adopting fairly common professional scent-free standards. Yes, experiencing physical impacts from fellow employees doesn’t make it impossible to be your most professional self, but it’s also hard to be at your best if you’re struggling for something as basic as air.

            4. ChokingOnSmoke*

              Same. There seems to be a default assumption that I’m being passive aggressive rather than actually struggling to breathe.

        2. NothingIsLittle*

          There’s a difference between an involuntary response and performative disgust, though. Leaving the area usually conveys that the reaction is involuntary, to me at least (I’m on the spectrum though, so it might not be universal). Not sure about RIP’s mother, but I’m inclined to believe there is some level of exaggeration on the part of the subordinate from the question, since the scents that genuinely make me ill would prevent me from getting into an elevator with coworkers.

          1. DJ Abbott*

            Me too. I’ve gotten off elevators because they smelled like cigarette smoke. That’s much easier than dealing with the debilitating illness I get from it.

          1. Michelle Smith*

            What kind of mask prevents smells? Genuinely asking as someone that still wears KN95 masks every time I leave my apartment and in my experience, those masks tend to trap the smells in longer than if I wasn’t wearing one at all. I’d love to get the scent blocking kind you’re referencing for when I do things like clean my cat’s litter box.

            1. It's Gonna Be May*

              Can you get fit tested? If you’re properly fit tested, you shouldn’t be able to smell a thing through your mask (in fact, assessing what you can smell when wearing it is part of the fit testing process). Perhaps your local health department could assist?

              1. Mianaai*

                Most high-filtration masks like KN95s, even when properly fitted, will block particulates but *not* volatile organic compounds which are responsible for a lot of smells. I’ve found that my well-fitted N95s will do OK with smells that have a, for lack of a better word, particulate “component” like cigarette/wildfire smoke, but don’t really have an effect vs things like perfumes, beyond what I would get if I held a handkerchief in front of my nose and mouth. As someone with a really really strong sense of smell and who does a lot of hobbies that are much safer wearing a well-fitted respirator, there is a huge difference between my N95s and my respirators that include a VOC filter as well.

          2. sensitive to smells*

            Doesn’t do much for odors unless you’re using an organic vapor cartridge, unfortunately.

        3. RIP Pillowfort*

          There’s having an involuntary reaction and there’s having an outsized reaction enough that other people notice. I’ve gagged in the detergent aisle when people had a bottle of Gain open.

          My mom is having a reaction for people to notice. It’s not because she’s getting a migraine or sick. It’s because she has to perform her disgust with something. Don’t ask me why, I wish I knew.

          1. Smithy*

            Yeah, my mom is like this with food and it’s really unfortunate. Whether it’s something she chooses not to eat for religious/ethical reasons or simply doesn’t like the taste – she makes a screwed up “that’s gross” face.

            And while I’m sure some of these foods smell in ways she doesn’t like, these are faces she’ll make when someone is ordering one of these dishes. It’s rude and unfortunately, and certainly nothing that at this stage she’s going to change.

            I’ve at least tried to tell myself that either as a child or young adult, my mom must not have had her food preferences taken seriously. And therefore, she still does a performative “yuck” to be taken seriously. Doesn’t make me enjoy the experience anymore, but helps me try to have some empathy as to where it might be coming from.

            1. Hrodvitnir*

              You know. Thank you for that. I get very frustrated by performative disgust and similar behaviours, whether it’s something I agree or disagree with.

              Your conclusion is pretty obvious, but I’ve never really thought about it. That slightly lowers my irritation level.

            2. Blame Game*

              My uncles ex wife grew up eating meat up until her 40s, then joined a religion of sorts then decided for ethical reasons wouldnt touch red meat anymore.
              Which is fine in itself, but she had been working in my uncles business for years with meat eating colleagues, and then one day out of the blue would start gagging, or covering her nose if a coworker brought non vegetarian lunches into work.
              As mentioned, this had never ever been an issue before, but then suddenly decided she couldn’t tolerate the odor.

          2. What_the_What*

            My brother does this with drinks. He’s a bartender so he makes a big deal out of it if he drinks something that isn’t up to “HIS STANDARDS” or whatever. I keep telling him you can’t be gagging and retching and shaking your head and being a dick about it, but his attitude is “but it’s sooo bad they need to know.” Drives me crazy.

            1. edda ed*

              Does it not occur to him to use his words? That is, leave a review? Speak to management, even? Like, saying openly that you think a drink is bad/why you think a drink is bad sounds to me like a much more effective way to communicate to someone something “they need to know.”

              1. edda ed*

                (tbh, these were rhetorical questions. Bro’s passive-aggressiveness tells me he doesn’t actually want to say his drink was bad so that maybe the next time his drink will be better, he just wants to publicly demonstrate his superior taste or whatever)

                1. What_the_What*

                  100%. I will often say, “Look you have YOUR way of making an old fashioned or whatever… if you don’t like THIS drink, identify why and ask “may I have more/less of X ingredient” whatever.. Nope. Much more about performance and showing disdain. Sigh

        4. Underrated Pear*

          Funny little side story – there was about a 10-15ish year period in which my Mom suddenly, without any prior issues, would pass out any time she smelled a scent that contained a particular ingredient. We couldn’t go into department stores in the mall (this was the 90s) because the perfumes are in the front, and she’d be out cold immediately. There was also a cleaning product used in her workplace that did it to her, and the janitors were not allowed to use it when she was in the area. She actually DID start asking people what perfume they were wearing (once she recovered!) so she could figure out the problem ingredient. She asked politely, though, and it wasn’t like she could hide her reaction from people given that she’d just dropped to the floor in front of them. She did actually figure out what the ingredient was, which I find kind of impressive given that it was pre-Google and she couldn’t go near the products even when they were packaged!

          1. jane's nemesis*

            Can you share what ended up helping her get past the passing-out reaction? Because presumably the ingredient didn’t just end up going away from all products!

            1. Bee*

              Sometimes your body just starts doing a weird thing for no reason you can ascertain and then just stops doing the weird thing for equally inexplicable reasons! I am definitely curious, though.

          2. That Crazy Cat Lady*

            Yeah, definitely tell more (if you’re okay with sharing)! How did she find out what the problem ingredient was, and how did she manage it after that?

          3. Neigh!*

            I came across a Tom Ford musk perfume that smelled like horse s**t in a stable.
            Imagine coming across that stench in a department store!

        5. Alanis*

          Ah yes, memories of high school scents mouldy 70s basement aka Body Shop patchouli. To this day I can’t stand anything that smells of patchouli.

          1. Princess Sparklepony*

            It’s probably my most hated smell. Even dog poop smells clean compared to it.

            I get like Eric Cartman talking about dirty hippies when I smell it.

        6. Susannah*

          Except… this office has moved to a no-scents policy. Hard to believe that if everyone is observing that rule, the scent is enough to provoke involuntary gagging.

        7. Princess Sparklepony*

          Could be the perfume base as well. I have certain perfumes I can’t wear because they smell great in the bottle but on my skin – smells like a dog had an accident, #2, not #1.

          It’s not great. I now try on perfume and walk around for 20 minutes before deciding to buy.

          And it could be one of the scents in the mix. Put me next to patchouli, amber and some kinds of musk – watch me turn green.

        8. coffee*

          You can definitely ask people what their perfume is! It’s kind of expected that people who are into perfume will ask other people about what they’re wearing, so they probably won’t be surprised. It’s sort of a compliment, usually.

          I’d go with something like “Excuse me, can you tell me what perfume you’re wearing? It reminds me of my friend’s.” They’ll probably tell you.

          If you come into regular contact with the person, you could explain that you react to one of the ingredients in some perfumes and that’s one of them, and then have the “can you wear another scent” conversation. But for a casual contact, you can still just ask for information!

      2. Laura*

        I wouldn’t say this is an outsized reaction though. It sounds like both the employee and your mom do this on purpose and that’s not okay.

    2. Antilles*

      That was my question too. This very much feels like the kind of over-dramatic performative behavior that you’d get as a form of protest from someone who thinks “this policy is stupid and I’m going to be sarcastic about it”.

    3. londonedit*

      Teenage girls seem to go through an ‘ewww, that stinks’ phase where any time they encounter a smell, they’ll dramatically pull their sleeve over their hand and cover their nose and mouth and fake-gag and all the rest of it. That’s what this reminded me of.

      I’m not saying people don’t have sensitivities to scents, of course they do, but most of those people don’t act out a hugely dramatic reaction.

        1. Petty Betty*

          After four teenage boys simultaneously – I can confirm: they *DO* indeed smell and it is potent. There were days I would have preferred living in a zoo.

          1. cityMouse*

            4?! Yeah…. I have one grandson who has a strong aroma. It’s like being around billy goats. I don’t understand the showering reluctance myself.

            1. Artemesia*

              apparently about half of young males have never been taught to clean themselves properly — i.e. washing crucial parts with a washcloth and soap.

            2. Petty Betty*

              It’s a phase that a lot of them go through. The “I hate showers” thing, followed by the “I can’t get them OUT of the shower” phase.

              1. AnnieG*

                When a teenage boy is in the shower for a long time, it’s not because they’re washing extra thoroughly…

                1. Petty Betty*

                  I never said it was. I just said that there’s a phase of not being able to get them OUT of the shower. Granted, they are paying particular attention to one area, and they may or may not be using soap, and/or a cloth.

                  All I know is that eventually, the top layer of dirt does rinse off before they get out of the shower, and I had no hot water during those years.

              2. Hrodvitnir*

                Haha it’s so true! My partner and I were the primary caregivers for my teenage brother for a few years, so I got to see (smell?) the testosterone hit, and the no shower to too long shower!

                Unfortunately he did still spend time with his parents, so it was hard to totally break him of bad habits. How is it possible to get a floor SO wet??

        2. Golden*

          I haven’t really been around teen boys in forever, but I’ve been through a number of their rooms while we were house hunting the past couple years… that particular aroma is like no other.

      1. Nonsense*

        Listen, Axe body spray plus teenage boy funk equals a scent so overwhelmingly disgusting that I’m surprised it hasn’t been turned into a weapon of war. Teen girls are underreacting, if anything.

        1. PhyllisB*

          Nonsense, your comment reminds me of a short video I saw on Facebook. Members of the National Guard were encouraged to do substitute teaching at a middle school. The narrator said after being in a classroom with adolescent boys bathed in Axe for 8 hours a day they were BEGGING to go to the front lines. (There was more that I don’t remember, but this cracked me up. Having four grandsons who have all gone through the Axe phase, I could certainly sympathize.)

          1. Petty Betty*

            I’m allergic to a lot of fragrances and Axe is a huge trigger for me. My oldest (then 12) brought a can home one day before we knew it was a trigger and the baby of the family (3 at the time) got a hold of it and sprayed the ENTIRE container in the living room.
            I spent two days in my bedroom in the dark while we had every single window open trying to air out the house. Axe was fully banned from then on.

          2. It’s Suzy Now*

            I thought you were being very dismissive of the poster above you, and then I realize that “nonsense“ is their screen name!

        2. Chirpy*

          This. The summer camp I worked at banned Axe in the cabins, because teen boy body odor during a summer week with minimal showers is still preferable to choking everyone with Axe on top of that.

        3. allathian*

          My nearly 15 year old went through his shower reluctance phase and I was certainly happy when it ended about a year ago.

          In my son’s school there’s only a 10-minute recess between the end of the PE class and the next class, so none of them shower unless they’re going to the municipal pool. And because they’re wearing athleisure clothes anyway, they don’t generally change, either. Some of them have reverted to the original use of perfume so they spray themselves with Axe all over to attempt to disguise the smell of unwashed bodies. Thankfully my son at least uses unscented antiperspirant.

          I pity their teachers…

        4. Princess Sparklepony*

          Yes, the Axe phase is hard to deal with. It’s called Lynx in the UK but it’s the same objectional stuff.

      2. Brain the Brian*

        I am hiding my head in shame from my own years as a teenaged boy, when I was extremely embarrassed about asking my mother to add deodorant for me to her weekly shopping list. I got some once in a free giveaway and used it until the tube ran out, and then I was still too scared to ask my mother to buy any for me for another two years. I used to wear about four layers of clothing in hopes of hiding the smell under it all.

        See also: I had nearly grown a full mustache before my father would agree to teach me to shave. Great parenting all around. A-plus.

          1. Brain the Brian*

            It’s been long enough since then now that I couldn’t in good conscience accept, but thanks for the kind words.

        1. Star Trek Nutcase*

          Unfortunately, I think some moms (main shopper) can be inexplicably oblivious that their teens need body products just as the adult mom does. My mom never bought us 4 kids deodorant and only bought generic shampoo for us. My unmanageable curly hair underwent an amazing change when I left at 18 yo and bought and used conditioner & defrizz products for the first time in my life (I shared my discovery with my baby sister who as mom’s favorite got products – as well as razors & tampons – from age 13.)

          1. Brain the Brian*

            Yes, lots of parents remain blissfully ignorant that their teenagers are no longer eight years old for waaaaaay too long.

          2. Starbuck*

            This is so sad, as kids and then young teens my sister and I would still join my mom on shopping trips (often it was required) and we could just grab what we needed and put it in the cart. She’d only question if it was some excessive quantity or an obviously more expensive than necessary brand. And by the time we were old enough that we didn’t have to go along with shopping, she knew by then what we picked out for ourselves and would grab that.

      1. Parakeet*

        Some years back, my now-spouse had a roommate who had a very cute but loud and with maybe two brain cells to rub together cat. One morning, spouse was in the kitchen making bacon, and I was standing a few feet away eating an orange. The cat comes running in and starts loudly meowing and trying to climb me. After a puzzled interlude I realized that she had misidentified the source of the bacon smell.

    4. RagingADHD*

      Sounded to me like it was in the opposite direction – the employee doesn’t think the policy was strong enough and is putting on a show when they encounter people who are within policy (and nobody else can smell) but that they suspect may have used a scented product.

  2. Three Flowers*

    I’m not 100% clear— is this person so sensitive to fragrances that they say they can still smell them, or are they reacting to perceived BO after the fragrance-lite policy was implemented? If it’s the second, and especially if it’s a “you won’t let us wear perfume so now *I* have to smell these gross people” thing, you have a different problem and a person who’s just being a glassbowl.

    1. Paint N Drip*

      I got the vibe these “smelly” people are wearing fragrances of some kind (not necessarily purposefully, shampoo or laundry detergent or…) and the reacting employee is ‘protesting’ their experience of still smelling products by being rude as described.

      1. I'm just here for the cats!*

        I took it the other way. That now that they have a fragrance lite space, she can “smell” people more. I think the OP needs to talk to her and ask her why she makes the face, etc. If it is because of someone’s perfumey type of smell then thats one thing. but if the emploee is just reacting badly to peoples general smell, not BO but just what soemone smells like without perfume. That is a whole nother thing!

    2. Woodswoman*

      My understanding is that this person is particularly sensitive to scents, and even though the scents in the office have been reduced to a point that noone else can smell them, this person presumably can still smell the scents and is making rude gestures around the people on whom they either can smell or believe they can smell scented products.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      My guess is that it’s is a scent with some staying power/fixative, like highly “performance boosted” (scented) laundry detergent or heavy, lasting perfume. When something like that is more noticeable to a certain person, it’s because can be a migraine trigger, and if the person affected can stop the scent from reaching the airways quickly enough they can sometimes head off the migraine. They’d do better to turn on their heel and get completely fresh air though.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        Right? IF they are one of the scent-sensitive people, then what they’re doing isn’t actually solving their problem at all, plus they’re being rude. And if they’re not scent-sensitive but rather are annoyed by having to stop wearing their own scented products, then they are being nothing but rude for no reason except to be rude. (But I totally agree that from the letter, it isn’t clear which group this problem employee falls into.)

  3. learnedthehardway*

    Hold on – your workplace is “fragrance reasonable”?!? What does that even mean? (To me, this is a half-assed attempt to keep everyone happy, without really addressing the issue that for some people, scents are a health issue that can trigger allergic reactions or migraines.)

    Honestly, I think you need to crack down on the scents before correcting the person who finds them irritating. Holding her breath in an elevator – I don’t blame her one bit. Holding her nose – might be a bit much, but honestly, if it keeps her from breathing in a scent that could trigger an asthma attack or a migraine – well, I’m with her. Also, fanning oneself or your workplace isn’t rude when you’re trying to rid the air of something to which you are allergic!!

    1. learnedthehardway*

      ETA – forgot to mention – I am VERY sensitive to scents. I can get a migraine just with a whiff of a scent to which I am sensitive. I cannot handle lavender or bee balm, for example – instant migraine with nausea.

      1. londonedit*

        But surely your approach would be to say to a colleague ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m incredibly sensitive to scents, and bee balm sets off an instant migraine for me. Would you mind not using it in the office?’ Or you’d escalate to your manager and say ‘There’s a scented product Jane uses that sets off my migraines. I’ve tried speaking to her but she doesn’t seem willing to stop using it in the office, and I’ve missed three days this month because I’ve had to go home early’. You wouldn’t just make faces and dramatically fan the air or cover your nose in an ‘Ewwwwww, you stink’ sort of way, which it sounds like this person is doing.

        1. Melissa*

          Exactly- nobody is criticizing her for being sensitive. I’m sensitive to sounds, but I don’t scrunch up my face and cover my ears when someone is talking too loudly. Because I’m a grown-up. So I say, “I am so sorry, but I have really sensitive ears! Can we both talk a little quieter?” And people chuckle and tone it down.

          1. LaurCha*

            Oh dear. I’m forever asking people to speak up due to my hearing being crap, but not crap enough for hearing aids…. we would have a heck of a time communicating!

            This is where I once again suggest that we should all take ASL as our second language in school.

            1. kupo*

              Side tangent: I was told all my life my hearing loss could not be corrected with hearing aids, but they’ve got new technology now that does actually work for me. It might be worthwhile yo see an audiologist if you haven’t within the past decade or so.

            2. Ace in the Hole*

              I am hypersensitive to noise, and often need to (politely) ask people to speak more quietly because it’s hurting my ears. When I was a kid, my hearing was so sensitive adults would accuse me of “making up” noises that bothered me because they were so quiet no one else could hear them without moving closer to the noise source.

              My sister is mildly hearing impaired. She can get along just fine in conversations as long as people speak loudly and clearly, but any alarms/timers need to be loud enough to wake the dead. Her alarm clock is so loud it literally shakes the bed.

              We shared a room growing up. With bunk beds. I learned to get up early pretty darn quick once she got her first alarm clock!

            3. Bear in the Sky*

              Since most schools don’t offer ASL, that would have to change first. But I agree it would be a good idea!

            4. Hrodvitnir*

              Yes! We’re all going to end up with communication issues at some point in our lives. I dream of an Aotearoa (NZ) where our kids are immersed in NZSL and Te Reo.

              A single generation of discomfort for some parents, and we could have a multilingual nation where Deaf people have their social struggles cut by 90%. But nooo. >_<

              1. allathian*

                I once saw a very interesting documentary about Martha’s Vinyard sign language. Starting in the early 18th century (!) the Deaf population on the island was so large that most people could use it and the Deaf community was fully integrated in island life. It’s a shame that culture disappeared.

          2. Sue*

            I used to turn off my hearing aids when people were too loud! I could still hear them but it brought the volume WAY down. (My Mom used to say there are blessings in being hard of hearing.)

            Also, I used to be supersensitive to scents. I could smell things no one else could. Interestingly, I couldn’t stand Bounce dryer sheets – they were awful. Not only did I smell things, I could taste them – gross. I had a coworker across the wall from me in the cube farm who would come back from lunch and spray perfume (rose scent). I instantly had a mouthful of it. I finally got the nerve up to ask her to stop doing that in the office. I got a dirty look, but she did stop. Strangely enough, after I retired, that sensitivity seemed to go away. Maybe I was just allergic to a toxic work environment? (The reason for early retirement.)

        2. Banana Pyjamas*

          I can’t speak for learned that hard way, but for myself migraine is often accompanied by vomiting. I often vomit first when scent is the trigger. So if covering my nose and mouth and gagging is rude, is it ruder than throwing up in the elevator or wherever else the coworker who can’t adhere to the policy happens to be?

          1. amoeba*

            I mean, if literally nobody else in the office can smell anything, it doesn’t really sound like people aren’t adhering though, does it?

      2. H*

        I am scent sensitive, although luckily not to the degree that you describe. I also have had to discreetly try to hold my breath in enclosed spaces, so I hope you know I am coming from a place of empathy.

        I actually think that being clear about the level to which a space can/is committed to controlling fragrances is good. It is actually really hard to get a large group of people to forgo scents completely as many personal and household products are just unnecessarily scented, and those who aren’t attuned to the issue might not even be aware of every ingredient in every product they use. I’d rather have a “scent-reasonable’ policy than an advertised “no scent” policy that can’t be enforced.

        That being said, Alison is correct that they need to engage with the employee to try and find a way that she can be comfortable as she works.

        1. Antilles*

          It is actually really hard to get a large group of people to forgo scents completely
          And that’s even more true in this case since this is a “retail/public service environment” so there’s likely to be plenty of smells coming from customers that the company has zero control over.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            I still can (unfortunately) remember the particular scent one customer from my days as a teller, who struggled with body odor in the summer (I totally sympathized with that) but dealt with it by dousing themselves it what I assumed was Jean Nate AND kept some of her savings in metal tins buried in the ground, where the bills picked up … well, Han Solo came to mind “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”

            While some tellers would inevitably have a sudden need to use the coin counter or do some filing out back when she came in, at the end of the day, if she came to your window, you were a grown up, and treated her with respect and did whatever transaction she needed that day, without resorting to unprofessional expressions and exclamations.

            1. Turquoisecow*

              Yeah when I was a cashier there was one regular customer who had a distinct but horrible scent – I have no idea if he didn’t shower or what it was – and when he came to the customer service counter we all would inwardly groan and try not to breathe much, but when he did come, we’d serve him professionally and not make faces or comments to his face. He was the nicest guy so that helped, and I always felt really bad for him, but definitely was not in a position to discuss cleaning products with him. I was a cashier supervisor also and if any of the cashiers had made comments or faces while he was at their station I would definitely have had a chat with them about being nice to customers.

              I hope this person isn’t doing this to members of the public because it will lose them customers, but if she is then OP definitely is overdue to say that this behavior cannot continue. It shouldn’t happen with coworkers either but DEFINITELY not with customers.

              1. Turquoisecow*

                And this was mostly teenagers, by the way, if they could keep faces to themselves then a grown person definitely can.

          2. Some Words*

            And that being the case, it’s really then on the scent sensitive person to find a work environment they can tolerate, or other coping method (like a mask). Making gagging faces/sounds and flailing one’s hands in front of one’s face during routine activities isn’t acceptable behavior from an adult.

            1. kupo*

              Where does it say they’re making gaging faces or sounds? Or flailing their hands? They’re covering their nose and mouth and fanning their desk with a folder. Sounds like they’re doing what they can to minimize the impact the scents have on them, personally.

              1. Banana Pyjamas*

                I wouldn’t say fanning is unprofessional. It’s been normal in every office I’ve worked in. People are just offended that it’s happening in response to their preferred products.

        2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          There are things that don’t have added fragrance but still have a smell, too, like sunscreen.

          1. DyneinWalking*

            Tons of things have a smell! A place can ban fragrances but it’s impossible to ban smells. It’s almost as if our nose evolved to recognize a huge amount of airborne molecules from all kinds of origins.

        1. Jackalope*

          From a practical perspective this is my recommendation. I also have scent issues (not anaphylaxis levels but my whole nose stops up when people wear certain fragrances near me), and I discovered that it got much better during COVID. Turns out that wearing a mask (at least one of the good N95 masks) helps block a lot of scents and keeps me from having the reactions I used to. It’s not enough to block everything, but if the level of scent has reduced enough that no one else can smell it, there’s a good chance that this will take care of it. Plus, that also helps with customers coming in wearing scents, who are obviously not going to be aware of the official policy.

          1. Some Words*

            Covid taught me that fragrance molecules are actually smaller than covid ones. That’s why the masks don’t completely block aromas. They do cut them down greatly though. I toss on a mask for a while when my fragrance loving co-workers gives herself a spritz at her desk.

        2. Bear in the Sky*

          Yes and no. It may block some scents, but it doesn’t block all of them, and the ones it doesn’t block are most likely to be the biggest problems.

          At least, that’s true in my experience, being fragrance/chemically sensitive. The kinds of scents that will make me feel very, very unwell if I stay in their presence for more than a few minutes are not blockable with masks.

          But those kinds of scents would not be allowed in a workplace with a “fragrance reasonable” policy.

          That’s not to say some people who are not me wouldn’t be made ill by scents that would be allowed under that policy. Much less what their experience with mask effectiveness might be.

      3. Hyaline*

        Just chiming in with solidarity: Lavender is the actual worst for me and it’s everywhere and few people believe that NO REALLY all-natural lavender can be a problem. (Many people seem to think that natural scents can’t possibly be a problem for people, it’s only the synthetic fragrances–not true!)

    2. Bunch Harmon*

      Yes to this. As someone who gets migraines from certain smells, I have responded to scents in ways that could definitely be perceived as rude. My reactions are immediate and partially involuntary, although I have managed to mostly keep them toned down at work.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The LW sent me the policy. It’s basically what’s summarized in the first paragraph of the letter: Refrain from using heavily scented products (and then it spells some out: lotion, perfume, aftershave, etc.). Also, maintain personal hygiene that limits strong odors, and wash your hands after smoking, eating, or using the bathroom.

      1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*


        I would have assumed that “fragrance reasonable” included not wearing any perfume or cologne at work, because that’s an easier change than replacing shampoo or laundry detergent.

        On the other hand, while “wash hands after eating” makes sense in that context, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.

      2. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)*

        Unfortunately, many laundry products are so heavily scented these days- I would put serious money on those products being the problem.

        1. Middle Aged Lady*

          Laundry detergent is one of my migraine triggers. I have to breathe shallowly in that aisle of the store, or ask my spouse to venture down it. Gain seems to be the worst.
          Heavy perfume, hairspray and scented plug-ins are the other items that cause me a lot of distress. I had to quit visiting a friend’s house because she loved her plug-ins.

          1. YetAnotherAnalyst*

            Same. One of the better health decisions I’ve made for myself is to order my (unscented) laundry detergent online, so I don’t have to go down that aisle ever again.

            1. Jasmine*

              Good idea! I would think walking dow a whole isle of laundry products would really be bad for a lot of people.

        2. Hannah Lee*

          Ugh, scented laundry products are my pet peeve and some can make me really uncomfortable with eye, nose, mouth itching, redness, congestion.
          I get some people love them, but I really wish they were not a thing.

          And it’s not just being in close proximity to someone who is wearing something laundered with those products. The ability of those particular fragrances to waft, persist and linger for a long time is amazing. A friend once did a load at my house with a sample of one and it took me like 5 washes to get the smell to stop lingering in the washer and dryer.

          I’ve got one neighbor 3 houses down who uses them, and I can always tell when he’s using his clothes dryer because of the scent in the air (and my itchy eyes).

          And I used to work for a company that had a very rich investor who would come in for meetings once or twice a year. I always knew he was around … because I could smell the laundry products on his clothes. It would baffle me: Dude you’re worth 8-9 figures and you spend your days smelling like Bounce and April Fresh Downy?

          1. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)*

            I live down the street from a laundromat. I can no longer open my windows during their 14 hours of operation, 7 days a week. The unnecessary push to scent clothes for weeks is so depressing.

          2. Golden*

            Are rich people supposed to use a more expensive detergent? Are there even luxury detergents? My current income is four times what I was making at my first job out of undergrad, and it never occurred to me to upgrade products.

            (just because tone is hard to determine, I’m not trying to be snarky or anything, just mildly curious and laughing)

            1. UKDancer*

              I don’t know, I’d never consider upgrading my washing powder even if I was rich, it doesn’t make me itch, smells pleasant and cleans my clothes.

            2. ReallyBadPerson*

              There are actually some pricey laundry products out there. They make all sorts of claims about their ecologically sound properties, as well as their superior scents. I’ve fallen for these claims, only to discover that they are crap. I’m now in the scent-free Tide camp.

              1. UKDancer*

                Yeah I tried some very eco friendly washing up liquid and washing powder and it was awful, you needed twice as much and it worked half as well. So I use fairy liquid and fairy non-bio washing powder.

                If I was very rich I’d still use those products because they do the job and work for me. The washing powder’s not fragrance free but it’s fairly bland and doesn’t make me itch unlike some of the other brands which disagree with me.

          1. Siege*

            Probably for the same reason Febreze is. There is actually an unscented Febreze, and it was the first product they rolled out, but it didn’t sell well because people assumed an unscented product didn’t work to eliminate odors. Now it’s an online-only item.

            1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

              But if your deodorant and your shampoo and your laundry detergent and your lotion and everything else ALL “smell nice” you are going to have a completely overpowering smell at the end!

              1. Broadway Duchess*

                A lot of people use a suite of products that gently layer scent. it all goes together so, assuming a clean body to begin with, a body wash followed by a lotion isn’t going to overpower because they are meant to work together.*

                *Again, assuming a clean body, products from the same line, and a user without a heavy trigger finger.

                1. Siege*

                  I don’t use products from the same line and I’ve never once heard, even from my extremely scent sensitive friend, that there’s a problem with that. Part of it is that (in my case as an example) soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, mousse, and hairspray are so mildly scented that the layering effect works anyway, unlike the much stronger and intentionally obtrusive scents in perfume, aftershave, and detergent.

                2. UKDancer*

                  Also I use products with various scents but I don’t use them all at the same time so I’m not using them all one after the other before going to work. So I wash my hair with a slightly menthol shampoo but only twice per week. It doesn’t seem to have a very lasting smell. Sometimes I use a hair treatment which looks like custard and has a very slight smell in the tub but doesn’t seem to smell much once it’s on me.

                  I use a more strongly scented shower gel because I like citrus smells in the morning to wake me up, but I don’t tend to put body lotion on until the evening and my deodorant is unscented. So if you smell me closely during the day you’d probably pick up Occitaine verbena shower gel but not a lot else.

                  Maybe it’s just me but I’m not habitually close enough to my colleagues to smell a lot from them and would imagine the same is true on their side. We tend to have a reasonable personal space circle in most places I’ve worked.

            2. amoeba*

              Yup, indeed. I am always confused by the discussions here on aam on this topic – in my personal life, I’ve actually never ever met anybody this strongly opposed to any kind of scent as appears to be the majority opinion here! (Or maybe just the ones speaking up? I have no clue, seriously!)

              I mean, yes, obviously, there is such a thing as “too much”. (And I gather that in the US, laundry products tend to be more heavily scented than here in Europe, anyway?) But apart from people with very small babies or with skin allergies/whatever, people really do appear to be fine with some level of pleasant smell in their products/actively seek out the ones they like…

              1. Media Monkey*

                same! i’ve never heard of an actual fragrance free workplace or met someone who asked me not to wear fragrance other than on here. i’ve always worked in open plan offices and i can’t currently smell any of the people sitting around me right now.

              2. UKDancer*

                Yes, I made a concerted effort today and couldn’t smell anyone particularly or their laundry products. I can only guess that the US has stronger scented laundry stuff than we do in the UK.

              3. Starbuck*

                Yes, I don’t think I’m nose blind but it’s only very occasionally that someone will walk by and the scent reads as “too much.” I can often smell people as they walk by of course, some combination of perfume/detergent, but the eye-watering moments are few and far between, and I think that’s the norm for most people. Where I live, I encounter far more moments of bad unmasked BO than excess perfume.

          2. Thank someone I no longer work there*

            I can’t say specifically to deodorant but scent has been added to cover the chemical smell in some products, particularly some cleaning products. Also makeup. The chemical smell in some “unscented” foundations bothers me more than the scent that is added to the “regular” product. I’m unusual in that I suspect!

              1. Who Am I*

                I’ve found that most “unscented” body/skin/hair/cosmetic products I’ve tried stink so badly I’ve had to throw them away only partially used. Fragrance is added for a reason!

        3. wendelenn*

          I have never understood the ads for laundry detergent that TOUT the scent as “so amazing”! (Looking at you, GAIN)

        4. Bear in the Sky*

          My personal rule for people who can be around me is that they cannot be wearing heavily scented clothing. If they’re not wearing perfume or cologne right now but they are wearing clothes that they’ve worn with perfume or cologne, and the scent hasn’t been washed out, that’s still a trigger. So are clothes that have had such heavily scented laundry products used on them that I don’t have to be wearing them myself to smell it. Most scented detergents don’t have that effect if they’re the only scented laundry product used, but aggressively scented ones, scent boosters, fabric softeners, that kind of thing, being in the mix, can create that effect.

          If the OP’s company is looking to solve fragrance sensitivity issues, they may need to add something like that. But it might be something they’re already working with on a case by case basis instead of putting it into the written policy. Like, they’re not asking everyone to change their detergent, but if someone’s scented clothing really is a problem for someone else, they would work with the scented clothing wearer to find something workable.

      3. Frankie*

        The problem is that no one truly follows these, they’re completely useless and eventually no scent policies have to be put in place

      4. Llama lamma workplace drama*

        We have a similar policy in the concert band I play in for performances where we are under the lights. It’s pretty much ‘deodorant yes, other scents no’. The heat from the lights intensifies the perfumes and colognes.

    4. Katrine Fonsmark*

      I’ve never heard of “fragrance reasonable” but honestly it sounds, well, reasonable to me! Like, you don’t need to be dousing yourself in Chanel No. 5 or Axe body spray for the office, but having to switch my family’s laundry detergent to unscented or buy unscented deodorant/shampoo/conditioner/etc. is not something I’d be willing to do. I like the products I use and the scents are not heavy or overwhelming.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yeah that sounds pretty sensible and reasonable.

        It’s also realistic in terms of what people are willing to do. Most people will refrain from using perfume / aftershave but won’t want to change shampoo / laundry products because that’s a lot more effort. I would be happy not to wear perfume but I need to use specific hair products for dandruff control and one of them smells slightly of menthol.

        So strikes me as a good policy.

        1. Sparkle Llama*

          Makes sense to me and I would add that I would be happy to switch a specific product if a coworker had an issue with it, but don’t want to have to try 10 different shampoos to try to find a fragrance free one that works for my hair if my shampoo isn’t actually an issue. Perfumes and bath and body works type lotions are a whole other story, and are easy enough to not use.

      2. Tio*

        It reminds me of gluten-friendly policies some restaurants have. Where they won’t use any gluten products in your food but don’t, for example, have special sets of cookware for gluten-free food, so if you’re extremely sensitive you may have a risk.

        That said, I don’t think a company could have a fragrance-free policy if they can’t control the customers/public. So this seems about as much as they can promise.

          1. Usually-an-AAM-lurker*

            Nope, because not everyone has extreme levels of sensitivity to either.

          2. Observer*

            No. For some people, it’s not going to be helpful. For others? It works well enough. It really matters what the specifics of your problem are.

          3. Tobias Funke*

            Informed consent is not useless. These policies inform people of the conditions. People are then empowered to make the choice that works for them.

            1. londonedit*

              Exactly – it’s the same with food labels here. Many will have a line that says something like ‘Made in a factory that also handles nuts and nut products’ so that if you have a severe nut allergy to the extent that you can’t eat anything that may have been made in the same general area as nuts, you know to avoid that product. Other people with less severe allergies can look at the label and say OK well this actual product doesn’t contain nuts, and my allergy isn’t severe enough to need to avoid things with a very small chance of cross-contamination, so it’s fine.

          4. Chirpy*

            No. I have one friend who can risk a small amount of gluten exposure, and one who is so reactive she absolutely cannot.

            The first can eat out at most places that have reasonable gluten-free options. The other will get very sick if she has any cross-contamination and has to be really strict about it.

          5. samwise*

            If it doesn’t work for OP’s employee, then the employee needs to be professional and talk to their manager and/or OP and see if there’s a way to resolve it. Not go around like a child making faces. If only because that behavior is not going to solve the problem for the employee –it’s going to make people upset or angry, but it’s not helping coworkers know what to actually DO about it.

            Given that the place of work is public-facing, these policies are about the best you can get. They could put a no-fragrances or smells of any sort policy in place, but 1. that doesn’t resolve the interacting with the public part of the job and 2. it’s exceptionally hard, if not impossible, to comply with. And 3. how will it be enforced?

            I mean, if I eat garlic or onions at lunch, there’s gonna be a whiff even when I’ve thoroughly brushed my teeth. If I smoke at home but not at work, there’s gonna be a whiff (I had a student who never smoked around me, but I know he did because I could smell it when he exhaled).

        1. Nonn*

          True “fragrance-free” adherence is really hard, bc even products that are called “unscented” are allowed to have fragrance – it has to literally be labeled “fragrance-free” to be sure that it won’t. Plus if you lived in a scented/fragranced house, that can follow you to work even if your own products are fragrance-free.

      3. catscatscats*

        Exactly! Unless the company or the sensitive person is offering to pay for a complete fragrance free overhaul of everyone’s personal life, it’s not a reasonable ask for most people. Fragrance free alternatives are often more expensive, and it’s just not reasonable to tell people to throw out product?

        And where does it end? Am I going to get written up because I went out to lunch and the restaurant only had scented soap? Is the business going to kick out customers because they have perfume on?

        I have misophonia, so I get it, I really do. But I don’t slap my hands over my ears and gag every time someone eats near me, and I certainly don’t continue that behavior when they’re making demonstrable efforts to keep my issue in mind….

    5. Nia*

      I would assume fragrance reasonable means things like your shampoo or laundry detergent can be scented but perfume, cologne, and scented lotions are out.

      1. Double A*

        Which is a little unfortunate because I’m not scent sensitive at all and some laundry detergents are still overwhelming. I mean, I know why you can’t police that but man, they can be awful!

        1. Broken Lawn Chair*

          Yes, why is everything all “now with Gain scent”? It’s so intense and perfumey – to me that’s a warning, not a selling point (and I also don’t have sensitivity – just dislike).

          That said, I’ve never noticed anybody out in the world smelling like Gain.

          1. Missa Brevis*

            What drives me up the wall are scented trash bags. I just want a bag to put my garbage in, I don’t need five different scent options, most of which are likely to give me a headache!

            1. Siege*

              I really want there to be a requirement that unscented products are color-coded. The number of times I’ve been unaware of a scented option and bought scented something (trash bags was recent) is … you know, more than 0, but at least it’s less than 5, so I’ve got that going for me. But it would help SO MUCH if the “non” versions of things were color-coded. This is also related to the time I didn’t even realize Heineken made a visually-identical product that’s non-alcoholic and I bought a case of that rather than the product I actually wanted. (I think there is a badge on the case, but it’s pretty small.)

            2. Hannah Lee*

              And what stinks (ha!) about scented trash bags is that they seem to be manufactured and stored along side the “unscented” ones. So the bags labeled “unscented” from some brands smell exactly like the scented ones, just slightly less potent.

            3. Petty Betty*

              When I’m dumping kitty litter, scented trash bags are great.
              Some of the scents are also great at (temporarily) keeping my dogs from getting into the trash.

              Unfortunately, I’m also allergic to a lot of fragrances, so I have to be very careful about what scents I get.
              As a bonus, I also live in bear country and use a dumpster for my trash, so no scented trash bag is going to mask the odor of food from the bears in my area (not that scented bags are in any way marketed as a bear deterrent or a way to hide trash from bears).

          2. LaurCha*

            I get so grossed out by those commercials where people are basically huffing laundry detergent.

            1. Expelliarmus*

              At least they aren’t making light of trying to eat it, like that Tide pod meme from circa 2018…

              Like goodness, the Internet takes things way too far sometimes!

    6. Anonym*

      Speaking from experience, I think fanning or making adjustments for oneself can be done subtly and politely, and OP’s employee is not doing that. In the employee’s shoes I’d be asking for (or providing my own) accommodations. Or possibly making an argument to management that the policy isn’t strong enough. (My personal line is that I shouldn’t have to take painkillers to do my job.)

    7. Tobias Funke*

      Are you suggesting there is no way for this employee to control what IS actually in her control? And the answer is instead to treat colleagues as if they are radioactive?

      I am sensitive to scents too. It has been a long and winding road to find products that don’t immediately give me the brain pain. But like…how is it okay to attempt to exert control over every other person and every bit of the environment while also acting like a second grader instead of exerting control over what is in their control?

      1. Siege*

        Especially when trying to control the environment is doomed to fail. I’m mildly scent-sensitive, I understand the struggle, but in a public-facing environment, you are simply never going to win the battle over scented detergent, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, hair styling products, and soap. You may win over perfume and aftershave, but you won’t over everything else, so the employee needs to be proactively engaging in finding a solution, not just visibly demonstrating that their coworkers stink in exactly the same way a kindergartener would react to the smell of feces.

    8. ThisIsNotADuplicateComment*

      Fragrance reasonable probably means employees shouldn’t wear scented products at work (since the LW specifically mentions people who used scented lotion having to adjust to the new policy) but the company isn’t going to say what they can use at home (laundry detergent, shampoo etc.) and they can’t control what the public will be wearing.

    9. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      If the person really has that reaction to a mild scent (others can’t smell it), then that is something that needs to be raised. Hey the policy isn’t really working for me, what else can we do?

      What the person cannot do is continue this passive-aggressive – oh woe is me, I still smell these people – reaction. It is rude. It also does not address the actual issue.

      1. RIP Pillowfort*

        This. I am scent sensitive and while triggering a migraine suuuuucks, it’s not something you can realistically expect total control over when you are working/in public/etc. Especially if other people can’t even smell it.

        My workplace has smells. Heck, we have a lot of unpleasant ones due to the type of testing we do. You can’t just be rude to people about it.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Particularly since it sounds like the workplace serves the public. Even if you can convince all of your coworkers to give up lavender-scented products, it’s very unlikely you can apply that restriction to everyone you serve. A different accommodation is probably needed.

          1. Ansteve*

            ^this. There also is the issue that a 100% scent free work place could run into ADA if you prevent someone from using a lotion or cream for a medical condition.

            1. Princess Pumpkin Spice*

              You can run into ADA, and you can also run into issues if everyone you’re speaking to/ writing up for breaking the fragrance policy is of a protected class.

              1. Temperance*

                Not to be all “well, actually” about it, but well, actually every single person in the US is in a “protected class”. It’s a common misconception that there are people who you can discriminate against; basically, everyone has a gender identity, a race, a culture, etc.

                1. Happy*

                  I think PPS’s point was that it was a problem if everyone you’re speaking to or writing up for breaking the fragrance policy is of the *same* protected class.

                2. Observer*

                  The point is that if all (or most) of the people are of a protected class that’s an issue.

                  So, it doesn’t matter if all of the people who get caught up in this are men OR women, to use the broadest example, but it does matter that it’s mostly in one of those groups vs a roughly equal percentage of men and women run into the problem.

      2. Ellis Bell*

        It’s fairly likely that they’re just trying to get better air circulation/protect their airways rather than do it to make a passive aggressive statement. Sure, they need to have it pointed out that it looks rude, but it probably won’t occur to them in the moment that they’re trying to get clean air. Yes, they can and should ask for better air quality by speaking up but as people can’t do that in shopping centres and in the midst of crowds when an emergency is developing due to scent, they develop off the cuff coping mechanisms.

        1. Siege*

          Strongly disagree with this. Unless the OP confirms that the employee is doing this to clients – and I have real trouble believing that no clients would have complained about this if it’s an action or policy of any duration – controlling who you react to when your reaction is so visibly aggressive like this is bullying. It isn’t about “clearing your airways” or “getting better air circulation”, it’s about insulting your coworkers who aren’t doing exactly what you want.

          When you can control who you react negatively to, the problem is you.

          1. Hyaline*

            Yeah, all signs point to an intentional exaggerated reaction rather than an instinctive reaction, especially controlling it around patrons/clients. That and the fact that it seems that this person hasn’t brought the problem up overtly–either to management or with individual coworkers–suggests it’s passive aggressive. It might be bullying, it might also be a very poorly adjusted person who doesn’t know how else to resolve conflict, but either way it needs to stop.

          2. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

            I tend to believe, taking the LW at her word, that this case is performative and obnoxious.

            That said, I could picture a scenario where someone could, with some difficulty, manage to keep a straight face smelling a client, but not having enough energy to do so for every coworker. Sort of like spoon theory, with the spoons needing to be saved for customer-facing times.

    10. Olive*

      While I hope there are more guidelines than “be reasonable”, I would guess that it’s a request to not wear scented products or perfumes at work, while recognizing that people may have reasons to need scented products at home that may carry a lingering smell – for reasons like budget, needing a specific medicated shampoo, needing a certain type of deodorant, etc.

      Another commenter in the past said it was like asking people to be sensitive to a coworker with pet allergies by not bringing pets into work and being mindful of cleaning pet dander from clothing, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to tell employees that they need to get rid of their own pets just because a coworker has an extremely bad allergy.

      1. Star Trek Nutcase*

        I’m old enough that when I started working smoking was allowed in offices, restaurants, etc. Smoke, even old, is a big migraine trigger for me. A smoke free office wasn’t possible then and it’s not now (people don’t have to smoke in my vicinity for me to be triggered & know they’re smokers).

        This meant I had to change, not my coworkers. When interviewing, I always asked about smoking policies. I’ve changed offices, desks, and jobs because I couldn’t risk migraines (which were untreatable for decades). I equate this to celiacs – sure in a perfect world, a restaurant takes every precaution, but anyone with severe celiac disease does not risk their well-being by expecting compliance from others.

    11. H.Regalis*

      I’m guessing it’s something like, “No perfumes or scented lotions at work” but acknowledging that they can only control what people have at work, and not every product they use at home. I’m thinking of what Alison referenced from the Job Accommodation Network in a post last year, “It is probably not reasonable for an employer to have and enforce a total no-fragrance policy because it is difficult if not impossible to enforce, especially if non-employees such as clients and volunteers come into the workplace.”

      Post: https://www.askamanager.org/2023/03/is-it-reasonable-for-our-office-to-go-so-fragrance-free-that-we-have-to-change-every-product-we-use-at-home.html

      JAN: https://askjan.org/disabilities/Fragrance-Sensitivity.cfm

    12. Dust Bunny*

      I would guess this means that mildly-scented shampoos, detergents, are OK but actual perfume, cologne, strong lotions, etc. are not. Like, don’t use things that are profoundly scented or in which the scent is pretty much the whole point.

      The letter isn’t very clear on whether or not this behavior existed before the reduced-scent policy, though–has this person always gagged at proximity to others or did it start after perfume, etc. was banned?

    13. Nonsense*

      “Fragrance reasonable” is taking a mature, nuanced approach to people’s needs. Such policies essentially state “look we’re all adults here and we want to treat everyone as such, so we’re asking you to recognize that some people go way overboard on fragrance and some people have varying sensitivities to any fragrance so please use common sense on what you’re applying and understand that we may ask you to not use that product at work if it’s found to be an issue.”

      Look, I suffer from migraines too, and fragrance is absolutely a trigger. My workplace has a fragrance-reasonable common sense policy, and so far things have been fine. I’ve had to ask two coworkers if they could swap out their handlotions and one coworker about his aftershave, and they made changes without issue they are reasonable people who don’t mind making a minor accommodation. If my sensitivity was so strong that I couldn’t have *any* fragrance around me at all, I would need to seek a different set of accommodations from HR – which would most likely come down to masking up, getting a HEPA filter by my workstation, or permanent WFH.

      If this employee is so sensitive that she has to constantly hold her nose, fan her face, or hold her breath around others, then she needs to seek a formal accommodation.

    14. DramaQ*

      I am going to guess it’s “Hey don’t use perfume, scented lotion, scented candles, essential oils, etc in the workplace and try to refrain from heavy duty smelling stuff when you can”.

      I can’t stand scent beads or smelly fabric softner. It gives me a migraine. That is something I would avoid in a workplace that has a fragrance policy because those are designed to make me really smelly to others.

      But they aren’t going to expect people to change every single thing they buy to make sure it unscented to where this person can’t smell it.

      Even “unscented” products can have a smell to them there is absolutely nothing in this universe that has no smell whatsoever to it.

      I am not going to spend my time, money and mental energy buying brands and products that are approved by my overly sensitive coworker. If the rest of the office can’t smell me I am going to call it good.

      And people just . ..smell. We all do to more or less an extent than others. Some people have medical conditions that cause them to have a particular body odor. How far are we going to limit smells for just one coworker?

      It’s up to them to find a way to work around it. IMO the company has done what it can to control the work environment. They can’t reasonably expect people to change in their personal lives and regular hygiene habits after discovering their policy still isn’t enough for said coworker.

      1. Dahlia*

        “Even “unscented” products can have a smell to them there is absolutely nothing in this universe that has no smell whatsoever to it.”

        Fun fact! SPACE smells! Apparently it smells like hot metal or burnt meat.

      2. DyneinWalking*

        Actually, there are plenty of things that don’t smell. Carbon-monoxide, for example – which makes it so dangerous.

        Your point still stands though! You can’t ban smells – in order to do that, you would need to ban all people, every single food item there is, most plants and plant products, animals, soil, wood, plastics…

    15. Wounded, erratic stink bugs*

      Yeah, I’m also bristling at the wording “fragrance reasonable,” because it sounds to me like it implies that no-fragrance or some low-fragrance policies are unreasonable. (To be clear, they are or can be extreme or difficult, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are unreasonable!) Plus, it doesn’t give any information about what level of fragrance is allowed, unless one interprets it to mean “the amount of fragrance a normal person finds reasonable” or “a reasonable person finds acceptable,” both of which also include stigmatizing people who have different fragrance needs.
      If this is the wording in your workplaces’s policy or the way people talk about it at your workplace, a couple of alternatives might be “medium fragrance” / “moderate fragrance” or “low-to-medium” / “low-to-moderate.” Certainly, calibrating how much is moderate is still open to interpretation and may need more information, but it does convey the information that it’s in between an anything-goes policy and a policy that affects many people’s choice of laundry detergent, air fresheners in their homes, etc. That’s my impression of the policy you’re describing, of course ymmv if I’m wrong. For what it’s worth, this in-between level is also what many people mean by a low-fragrance policy as opposed to a no-fragrance policy, so you may not even need a term with the qualifiers I suggested.

      1. Wounded, erratic stink bugs*

        Rereading my comment, I want to make more clear that I believe that no-fragrance policies may or may not be reasonable depending on the context, but when they are reasonable or not isn’t the issue at hand so I didn’t spend a lot of time on that part.

      2. Ex-Teacher*

        >because it sounds to me like it implies that no-fragrance or some low-fragrance policies are unreasonable.

        They kind of are, though. At this point, the workplace is reaching into the employee’s home life and heavily dictating what products they can use for their own personal hygiene. You don’t know why an employee uses specific products- cost, availability, or even medical-related reasons.

        It’s not reasonable to reach in to an employee’s personal hygiene and grooming habits to that extent. Asking to limit strong fragrances is reasonable, keeping a low fragrance environment is reasonable. a no-fragrance environment is not a reasonable ask.

        1. Head sheep counter*

          Exactly. The line between don’t wear perfume and change all your products (at your own expense) should be thick and well bounded. Especially in a public serving job… where there’s you know… public.

        2. amoeba*

          Yup. Seriously, I’d be looking for a new job pretty fast if they tried to dictate which cleaning products or shampoo I was allowed to use at home!

          (And yes, if I was actually sharing my office or something with somebody who was extremely sensitive and asked me nicely to help her, I’d of course see what I could do! But as a company-wide policy “just in case”? No way, I’d be out.)

      3. Colette*

        Context matters in what is reasonable.

        It is reasonable for someone to say “I can’t handle fragrances, so I’m going to buy unscented products and not allow products with added scents into my house.”

        It’s not reasonable for that same person to say “I can’t handle fragrances, so my neighbour can’t have scented products in their house.” or “I can’t handle fragrances, so the grocery store can’t sell anything with an added scent.”

        Realistically, no one is going to go out and buy different laundry soap so that they can wash the scent out of their clothes and go to the DMV. Most people aren’t even going to do that for a coworker they run into in the hall twice a month. So “no scents” isn’t an enforceable policy in the vast majority of places.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          Also, as many people have pointed out: 1) People have different sensitivities to different smells – somethings that has barely any smell to one person may trigger a migraine in another, and 2) almost everything has some kind of smell.

          It’s easy to ban fragrances like lavender in a workplace because that’s mainly used as a scent – but if you really wanted to ban all fragrances that could potentially trigger someone’smigraine, you should also include stuff like citrus fruit, various spices, and peppermint tea – to name just a few items on the long, long list. In fact, to be on the safe side, you should just ban all food altogether.

          How far are you willing to go? You have to draw the line somewhere; and because most things have some kind of smell, that line is going to be somewhat arbitrary no matter what you do. “Try to refrain from adding deliberate scents to your body” seems like a very reasonable policy.

        2. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

          But maybe if scented detergent gives the person you sit next to every day migraines you can switch to unscented next time you need to buy more? It’s not like shampoo where most formulations don’t have an unscented version. This isn’t something that a policy could easily handle, it’s just “don’t be a jerk on purpose”.

    16. Nancy*

      Fragrance reasonable means fragrance reasonable. It recognizes that companies cannot control every product a person uses, nor should they. Don’t go to work doused in perfume, but if your shampoo happens to have some scent it in, that’s fine.

      And that coworker is acting rude, and people are not going to want to help them.

      1. Andromeda*

        This is not necessarily common sense though, and value-laden words like “reasonable” should really just be spelled out. (I’m from the UK and I think fragrance-free or low-fragrance workplaces are less common here.) Just look at the debates that rage in the AAM comment section every time someone mentions fragrances in the workplace.

        Plus, some shampoos and body washes smell really quite strong!

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          It sounds like it is spelled out, though, the LW just didn’t feel the need to go into the specifics as it’s not relevant.

          Plus, some shampoos and body washes smell really quite strong!

          Sure, but some people use specific shampoos and body washes to combat or ease medical issues, so you can’t really insist folks stop using them or switch to something else (which may cost them more). Things like perfume and cologne are generally not necessary so they are easier to curb.

          1. Roland*

            > It sounds like it is spelled out, though, the LW just didn’t feel the need to go into the specifics as it’s not relevant.

            Yes, there is a surprising amount of comments criticizing the policy for being vague as if a 3 word title is definitely the entire policy and not just the title.

    17. Ex-Teacher*

      I would suggest that anything more than what the LW’s policy says veers into the territory of becoming an unreasonable expectation/accommodation.

      Its a reasonable accommodation to ask people to limit fragrances and to avoid particularly strong odors. It is not reasonable to expect people to discard all of their personal grooming items and/or change all of their personal hygiene/grooming habits for this situation.

      ADA and good practice require people to offer reasonable accommodations, and “reasonable” is the key word. Making an office so scent-free such that one employee can be the arbiter of what smells (which is the practical effect- you’re saying that anything which bothers this employee should be “cracked down on”) is not reasonable.

      1. Star Trek Nutcase*

        Smells aren’t just fragrances either. I’ve got a coworker friend from another culture who “smells” strongly from whatever they cook or eat – seems to be oozing from their pores. She claims she can easily tell when I’ve indulged my love for lots of garlic – again pores not clothes. Neither of us would suggest the other eat differently. If I’m particularly sensitive one day, I turn on a fan and distance to cope.

        Accommodations don’t require others suffer – or at least no more than minimally.

    18. Canuckian*

      I assume it’s along the lines of our workplace (elementary school) which is fragrance sensitive. We cannot advertise ourselves as fragrance FREE because we cannot assure that visitors will all abide by the policy. And while I don’t get migraines, I can have allergic reactions to strong scents and tbh, I notice them more now, than I ever did. We’re also nut sensitive, again because a child might bring something with nuts in, even though we ask folks not to send it.

    19. Head sheep counter*

      Have we decided that personal accountability is a non-starter? Behaving like a rude child about/to people is not a reasonable thing. This is a public facing/working job. Insulting the people you serve and work with likely indicates it isn’t the right job for this person. It is on the person to figure out or request further accommodation or new working situations.

    20. Observer*

      your workplace is “fragrance reasonable”?!? What does that even mean?

      That means that they are trying to cut down on fragrances while understanding that it’s just not reasonable, or even possible to get rid of ALL fragrances.

      I think you need to crack down on the scents before correcting the person who finds them irritating.

      How? By allowing this one person to be the “scent police”? The behavior being described really does nothing to actually help someone who is actually triggered by scent, but is extremely performative. (Holding ones nose and covering ones mouth does absolutely nothing to lower the chances of triggering a migraine or similar reaction to a scent.) So, there is no reason to assume good faith. Add to that this this person is reacting to scents that *no one else* can smell, and it’s just not a reasonable stance to take.

    21. Moose*

      I am curious and would like your perspective. How does a workplace that is open to the public crack down on scents? From the way the LW described the environment, “scent reasonable” sounds like a good way to go. There’s no way they can be a “scent-free” space unless they start banning members of the public who are wearing scents.

      1. Sweet Fancy Pancakes*

        And not just wearing scents (intentionally)- as a librarian, I daily serve people who smell so strongly of body odor or cigarette smoke that after they leave I have to spray something like unscented Febreze to clear the area of the smell. Not to mention the library materials that have been in their home/car.

        1. Esmae*

          My library is near a popular Appalachian Trail campsite. There is no smell on this earth quite like summer thru-hikers. But there’s not much they can do about it, and I’m not going to make a show of holding my nose or trying to fan the smell away from my face!

    22. What_the_What*

      “Fragrance Reasonable” actually makes MORE sense to me than “NO FRAGRANCE AT ALL EVER” because 1) people will push back more against a complete ban, 2) you can’t control what the outside clients etc.. coming in are doing and 3) it’s UNreasonable to expecct people to spend potentially quite a bit of money on a bunch of NEW products to bow to one or two sensitive people (FTR I am sensitive to some, as well and patchouli gives me an INSTANT migraine, for example while others are just very unpleasant for me, like lavender) but I get that people have lives outside of my personal space and would never overdramatize like the LW describes. It’s one thing if I use … say Downy Light on my clothes and you can smell it if you HUG me, but it’s another if we’re in the same conference room and I can smell you 10 feet down the table. One is reasonable, one is not.

      1. Observer*

        ) it’s UNreasonable to expecct people to spend potentially quite a bit of money on a bunch of NEW products to bow to one or two sensitive people

        And it’s not just money. People have a lot of reasons to use the products they use. This level of invasion into those decisions is just not tenable.

        1. What_the_What*

          Yep. There is a certain deodorant/anti persperant I like. I don’t like the way gels feel sticky, etc.. and it ONLY comes in a “light fresh scent”. I’m not changing it. If you’re close enough to smell my armpit, we have bigger issues LOL!

    23. Laura*

      They already cracked down on the scents. and this person is being performatively grossed out, they aren’t actually having a reaction. If they truly are having a reaction to the scent (and it’s not just that they dislike it) they should go to management or HR and talk with them about it.

    24. Rebecca.*

      Totally with you. I cannot find it within myself to prioritize the feelings of people who do not care at all about the pain my sinuses experience. I think a coworker who continues to use products that hurt my sinuses is way, way ruder than me quietly holding my nose and covering my mouth. Want me to stop? Well, you first.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        Have you told them the products hurt your sinuses or are you hoping they read your mind? Is the smell from something like perfume or cologne that they can just forgo, or is it shampoo or deodorant which they can’t? What if the smell is from something they medically need like a lotion?

  4. Hapless Lab Assistant*

    Can’t people ever deal with things in a kind way? (I know the answer.) Sheesh.

              1. Siege*

                Yeah, I was going to say. I’m taking down all your names, and the next time you ask me to get things off the high shelves for you, I’m not helping. :P

  5. Nanc*

    As someone with a freakishly good sense of smell–masks and fans are your friends. Working with the public – not much you can do but if she’s in a shared space/desk politely asking that area to be fragrance free would be reasonable. Polite is the key.

    1. anon for this*

      Agree on the masks. I’m still masking at work (yes, I’m a holdout, sue me) and I find that the mask blunts a lot of odors that could otherwise be problematic.

      (Also, I managed to not get everyone’s colds and flu last winter, despite being in a cube farm, so yay!)

    2. Not That Kind of Doctor*

      Agreed. I work in a medical office and our policy is effectively fragrance free. The bigger issue is the patients coming in. We’ve had patients sitting in the waiting room that I can smell from 30 feet away as soon I open my office door and who “scent” the entire building before they are out the door. It’s usually cigarette or pot smoke. Sometimes even with a mask on I can TASTE the odor (so gross). In the extreme cases we mask AND rub something like Vicks VapoRub inside the mask. It might make my eye water and feel like I’m burning out my nose hairs, but it is better than tasting the stink for hours.

    3. Cubicles & Chimeras*

      Also for those of us like this: taste is your friend since it affects smell.

      If you’re going to be around someone you know has an odor problem, aim for strong tasting mints/gum and it’ll help override the smell factor if you find the right one. Altoids level mints (or cinnamons or licorice or whatever).

      1. Esmae*

        Peppermint oil or menthol under the nose also make a big difference, if those aren’t the smells you’re sensitive to.

  6. Anonym*

    Seconding fans and masks, particularly N95s! And as a scent sensitive person (migraines, woohoo), I concur that there’s no reason to be so obvious about this. The person is choosing to be rude. I hope they’re open to reasonable accommodations and kindness once OP points all this out.

    1. Paint N Drip*

      Totally, their rudeness is a choice. I’m also a scent weirdo (I like my perfume and some scented products, the WRONG scented products can make me Linda Blair lol) and there is no reason to be super rude to colleagues. A lot of us change our lives to make our own accommodations but that’s not reasonable to ask of everyone we ever interact with, and I do think the OP’s office having a scent policy is a fairly good general accommodation

  7. Nea*

    Since the employee is already covering their mouth and nose in an elevator, it’s not a huge stretch to tell them to do so less offensively and more efficiently with a face mask.

  8. Ariaflame*

    I wonder if they have checked with a medical professional since they appear to have an extreme oversensitivity to smells if they can smell things other people can’t.

    1. Triplestep*

      I can’t tell if you’re being facetious, but people do have different abilities to smell things. I am very sensitive to smell and can often smell odors other can’t. My husband has just about zero sense of smell. People are different. No reason to run to the doctor to have this fact confirmed.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I have a super sniffer for natural gas. Which sounds really useful in a safety context, but mostly just makes me miserable around those fake-wood fireplaces.

    2. Anonym*

      There’s nothing a doctor can do besides painkillers or other ways to manage your reaction, at least in my experience, which is headaches/migraines. There aren’t objective, external measures of how much pain or discomfort people experience. And I’m not sure olfactory sensitivity is indicated in any particular diagnoses, though I suppose it could be. My doctors over the years haven’t said anything.

      1. Beans*

        It can be a warning sign of pregnancy. There’s actually an old AAM about a coworker bristling at OP’s scent. OP went to great lengths to change their products out, and when the coworker was still struggling with OP’s scent, OP was like, idk man, maybe you’re pregnant. Coworker came in the next day with an apology and a gift card for OP because she was!

        1. MsSolo (UK)*

          I could smell next door’s cooking through the wall when I was pregnant, which was an insight. But now, post a bout of covid, I can smell 99% of things but apparently cannot identify gone off milk for love nor money, which means I’ve made myself more than one chewy cup of tea.

        2. Golden*

          Yes! I determined I was pregnant around 11 days (later confirmed with a test) when I noticed how awful the cat food smelled despite it never bothering me before.

          1. allathian*

            Can confirm. I first suspected I was pregnant when the smell of brewing coffee, normally one of my favorite scents. At the time, most people in my department had their own office. Normally I enjoy licorice, but when I was pregnant I couldn’t stand the smell of it (just as well as licorice isn’t recommended during pregnancy unless you have very low BP). Standing at my coworker’s office door I could smell the opened bag in her closed desk drawer even when she wasn’t currently eating it, maybe 12 ft away.

            1. allathian*

              When the smell of coffee made me gag when it’s normally one of my favorite scents.

        3. londonedit*

          Yep. I’ve never been pregnant but I once shared a hotel room with a friend who wouldn’t stop going on about how awful the water in the bathroom smelled. She wanted to go and complain, and kept asking me if I could smell it. I couldn’t smell a thing! Had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Turned out she was pregnant. Another friend knew she was up the duff when she suddenly couldn’t stand the smell of cooked eggs – she was out for breakfast with her partner and he ordered a fry-up, and she thought the eggs were off because they smelled awful to her.

        1. Broadway Duchess*

          I am always curious when this gets brought up — what accommodation, other than exclusive WFH or use of a sealed office, could the provider suggest? Accommodations have to be reasonable and creating a scent-free office (rather than, I guess, scent-reduced) is going to be nearly impossible.

      2. octopodiformes*

        This. There is little doctors can or will do. When my mild artificial fragrance sensitivity suddenly became extreme 4 years old and I nearly lost my job because of the strongly scented cleaning products used in the buildings I work in, I visited my primary care, a neurologist, an allergist, an ENT, a gynecologist, and an endocrinologist looking for solutions. They told me there was no real testing available, disagreed on an etiology or even a diagnosis, gave me multiple medications that they told me probably wouldn’t help (they didn’t), and told me that I just needed to avoid exposure to artificial fragrance. Some treated me like an malingering whiny inconvenience who needed to shut up and stop bothering them with my insolvable, poorly understood health problem.

        Trust me, if there was an effective treatment or form of mitigation for fragrance sensitivity, those of us who suffer from it would have found our way to it. Many of us have tried everything to remain employed and part of public life and society. Some of us may have a better detecting system than others in addition to the sensitivity that causes the adverse health reaction. I suspect that for many it’s like if a person starts consumes less sugar for a time and then sweet things start tasting sweeter. You simply notice more. It’s easier to pick up on fragrance if you have less of it floating about your person because all your personal care products are 100 percent scent free. Also, if you tend to react badly to scent, you might find yourself scanning the environment around you for it since a fragrance means tiny alarm bells go off that you are about to feel ill.

    3. Bagpuss*

      Well, and if there are things which you react badly to you tend to learn to notice those triggers, whereas others may well be *able* to smell them but don’t particularly notice them.

    4. My Only Comment*

      I’ve never commented before but I wanted to add something here. I have a family member who suffered from migraines and extreme fragrance sensitivity. After two decades, it turned out that she had very low blood pressure, a resting heart rate is the low 30s, and needed heart surgery. That was the cause of her frequent headaches. If you have fragrance sensitivity and headaches that are affecting your daily activities, please consider thorough medical care rather than self-diagnosis.

      1. Hrodvitnir*

        Wow! I’m glad she lasted long enough for the issue to be found and treated.

        As someone who pays a little too much attention to what my body is doing, the idea of having a heart rate and blood pressure that low without noticing is wild. What a bad time.

  9. MissMeghan*

    I agree with the importance of ensuring the employee is being accommodated, but wow I am really not ok with their current behavior. It feels so aggressive and judgmental of their coworkers. Most things have scents and it really sucks to have to guess at what is triggering your coworker when all you get are scoffs and flailing. If the employee is having adverse reactions to scents they need to talk to their supervisor about accommodations. If there’s particular scents that are triggering a reaction, that’s something that could be addressed. If not, and they just don’t want anyone to smell like anything, that’s not realistic beyond what should be expected of others.

  10. Llellayena*

    I’m the scent sensitive one around here. I’ve left rooms when the cigarette smell was too overwhelming (and stated a time limit and that the door must be open). I’ve asked for a specific range of scented soaps for the bathrooms so I can avoid using the triggering ones. And I’ve asked one specific coworker who likes to douse themselves in perfume to step back. But I blame it on ME. “I have a sensitivity to a scent you’re wearing, can you step back a bit?” I think what the coworker in the letter is doing is more obvious than it needs to be, but not out of bounds for making things comfortable for them. The portable fan would be useful – both a desk version and a handheld. The handheld can be for the cover-your-nose times, it’ll just look like you’re overheated.

    1. Expelliarmus*

      I wonder if the coworker in the letter thinks that because there’s a policy now, it’s other people’s fault if they can still smell stuff? And that’s why they don’t do what you do?

      Not saying they’re in the right, but it’s possible that that is the excuse they would leverage.

  11. Audrey Puffins*

    Do we think we might have another “ability to smell the most subtle of fragrances has greatly multiplied since becoming pregnant” case on our hands?

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Would that change the fact that their behavior is rude and inappropriate?

      1. edda ed*

        It certainly would not, and the letter Audrey Puffins references doesn’t even frame the scent-sensitive coworker in a good light—in that case, while the pregnancy-induced-scent-sensitive coworker truly could detect scents on the LW, the scent didn’t actually bother her, and she was just exploiting the LW’s considerateness for her own amusement (she thought it was funny to watch the LW scramble around trying to remove bothersome scents, even though the scents didn’t bother her).

        1. LaurCha*

          Yeah, that coworkers was smelling stuff extra because she was pregnant, but she was also a huge jerk.

  12. GladImNotThereAnymore*

    I know getting into details of medical conditions in an office can be problematic, but if you can find out more details I think it may be helpful. My wife was very sensitive to fragrances and at times would wear a charcoal mask when she wasn’t able to remove herself from the area. It wasn’t just an “I’m overacting” but a heavy exposure could even affect her cognitively – she even forgot how to get home one day on a route she drove hundreds of times after a particularly bad one. Frequently she’d sort of shut-down conversationally – would appear standoffish because she couldn’t rapidly engage with others like normal. It is possible that the person really needs a more significant accommodation and what is being perceived by others as rudeness really is just a way to cope.

    1. Cut Short for Time*

      The charcoal mask seems like a good idea! I can still smell most things through an N95, so I’ll have to check that out as I am also sensitive to smells.

      1. Jay (no, the other one)*

        Last year I had a bad cold, was testing COVID negative, and was still kind of wary so I decided to double-mask – a surgical mask over an N-95. I walked past the disgusting artificially cinnamon-scented wreaths in front of the grocery store and didn’t smell a thing. Amazing.

      2. GladImNotThereAnymore*

        She had found a nurse online who would make them in her spare time, though that was quite a while ago, but hopefully you can find something similar. They had a cloth “mask” part that was washable, and an inner charcoal filter (basically charcoal grains in a soft bag) that was removable. Definitely helped her, though it only would cover her nose and mouth as a typical mask would – still would get exposed through eyes, etc. So, much better than not having one, but wasn’t a 100% solution. Good luck!

  13. cindylouwho*

    Super smell sensitive person here (causes debilitating migraines) – I always carry an N95 with me! It’s such an easy fix for smells.

  14. Triplestep*

    I’d be interested to know if people are actually FOLLOWING the fragrance policy; both the letter and the advice seem to be assuming the policy is being adhered to – is it? I like that Alison is not minimizing the fact that this staff member is still experiencing issues with others’ fragrances, but in the LW’s shoes, I’d start by ensuring the policy is being enforced.

    Fragrance sensitivity is something that’s often not taken seriously, and there’s no good way to discuss it without irking at least some of your colleagues. It’s great that there’s a policy now, but I’d hazard a guess that this staff member feels they finally now have right on their side and they are making a statement they could not have made pre-policy. If this person has worked years having their fragrance sensitivity minimized or ignored – and now there’s finally a policy but it’s not being enforced – they might be at the point of “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

    1. Managing While Female*

      “overall people have been trying to be responsive to sensitivities, and we have addressed issues directly as required.”

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        Honestly, even if it weren’t being followed the answer for the employee would be to alert management, not act like a child around folks.

        1. Jackalope*

          I agree with the consensus that whatever is going on with this coworker, she shouldn’t be acting like she is. But I can also attest that I’ve had a lot of people who either don’t get it or just don’t care with regards to how scents affect people. One small example: managers at our office have on many occasions (including at my request because this was making it hard for me to breathe) told people not to use scented products in the bathroom (ie squirting perfume or air freshener to mask bathroom scents). Products have been thrown away. Emails have gone out. Discussions have been had. People keep doing it, only now they carry it with them so it can’t be thrown away. It’s super miserable being in the bathroom with no option to leave for a few minutes and having someone come in and make the air unbreathable. So I can understand people not feeling like management will be able to help.

          1. Jennifer Strange*

            Okay, but if they’re not even trying to talk to management about it that’s on them.

      2. Observer*

        Ye s. And also “even though no other coworkers are able to smell anything” and “a “smelly” person has been sitting at (that other coworkers can’t smell anything from).

        So, yeah. This is definitely their issue.

    2. Dinwar*

      If your “desperate measures” involve acting like a child, however, that’s not reasonable.

      A reasonable adult would have discussed the issue with the person directly, rather than making a scene about it. Or, if they didn’t feel comfortable doing that, going to their manager and saying “I know these people are trying, but it’s still really hard for me to work with certain people due to the amount of scent.”

      What this employee is doing isn’t about improving the situation. It’s about attention. And it’s one of the most immature ways to get that attention that’s available to them at this juncture.

    3. Dahlia*

      They work with the public. They can’t take “desperate measures” because the organization they work for can’t force the public to follow their policies.

      1. allathian*

        True, but I don’t think the employee’s holding her nose and grimacing at the public. If she did that, it would be a different issue that I’m pretty sure management would address quickly. She’s acting like a sulky kid at her coworkers.

  15. Lady Danbury*

    I’m wondering how much of this is actual fragrance versus people’s natural scent, which can be unappealing based on a number of factors, even if they don’t smell “bad.” For example, some studies indicate that closely related people tend to smell unappealing to each other. Regardless of the cause, the employee’s reaction is unacceptable!

    1. Commenter 505*

      Agreed. To me, there’s a big difference in an individual’s sweat/exertion odor in cold weather vs. hot weather. For some reason cold weather sweat is the olfactory equivalent to nails on a chalkboard for me, despite being a “smaller” smell and objectively less pungent.

    2. allathian*

      Yes, and closely related people means teenage kids and their opposite-gender parents in particular. There’s a reason why moms think their teenage sons smell horrible! The same applies to daughters and fathers, although it seems to me to a slightly lesser extent, and at least in relatively affluent countries a possible reason is that it’s much less common for girls to rebel by refusing to shower regularly than it is for boys.

      Girls who lose access to regular showers because of, say, poverty or abuse (some parents will restrict their kids’ access to clean clothes and showers as a “punishment”) tend to be ostracized by other girls, but for boys refusing to shower can be a form of bonding because it’s just another “boys will be boys” thing.

      That said, I don’t shower every day unless there’s a heatwave, and that was the case even when I went to the office every day, even if I do wash the parts that tend to sweat the most. But to some people who shower daily as a matter of course, that practice probably seems gross.

      I also use non-scented laundry detergent and mildly scented shampoo that I can’t smell on myself when my hair is dry.

  16. Cafe au Lait*

    I wonder if the smell-sensitive person has removed so many fragrances from their life that now any fragrance is Too Much.

    When my daughter was an infant I washed her and my clothes in dye-free, fragrance-free Tide. I’d still use regular Tide for towels and bedsheets. Then when she got older, she kept complaining about the “stinky smell” on her towel. Rewashed in her Tide and she didn’t have a problem.

    Recently we stayed overnight at my aunt’s and I could tell my aunt used Downy or another type of fabric softener. My daughter couldn’t stand having her face wiped off with a washcloth, the smell (which was mild to me!) was too overwhelming.

    1. Jay (no, the other one)*

      This is definitely a thing. My husband is sensitive to fragrance and we have a fragrance-free house. After 40 years I notice scents much more easily and I’m uncomfortable with anything that’s strongly scented, especially laundry products. When my next-door neighbor uses the dryer, it wafts into our backyard. Ick. And whoever invented Gain Flings should be shot into space in a capsule sealed up and full of that stuff.

    2. Laura*

      I’m not sensitive to fragrance, but I used scent-free laundry detergent for years and when my boyfriend and I first moved in together I thought his scented laundry detergent was SO STRONG. I’ve been using it for a while now (the last time I went detergent shopping there were only like 3 containers on the shelf and all were scented) and I don’t notice it anywhere near as much.

      I’ll probably still switch back to unscented eventually though.

    3. Hrodvitnir*

      Yes, we use unscented laundry/cleaning products (just preference), and I find it astounding how nose blind people must be to tolerate scented laundry products.

      It’s *so strong* when you’re used to unscented, and right against your body where your body heat will release it.

  17. Crencestre*

    If you breathe through your mouth, you won’t smell anything – and no, the smells will NOT go into your mouth! I learned to do this when I worked at a nursing home; as clean as it was kept, there were all the odors that are inevitable when people are incontinent. You can breathe through your mouth unobtrusively – and yes, you can breathe that way for a sustained period of time.

    It doesn’t sound as if this employee is really concerned about how their scent-sensitive behavior is affecting others and it DOES sound as if they’re milking it for all they’re worth. But there IS an alternative to being overpowered by odors on the one hand and acting as if everyone around you just crawled out of a mud-wrestling match held in a pigsty!

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      This is one of those just because it works for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone things. There are fragrances I can taste.

    2. Apt Nickname*

      If a scent is strong enough, I assure you that breathing through your mouth won’t work. We have someone who wears so much scent that I can TASTE if she’s been in a room before me.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      If you breathe through your mouth, you don’t get any of the filtering benefit from your nose hairs, so it goes into your lungs unfiltered.

      I try hard to breathe through my nose when I smell cigarette smoke, but it’s hard to do when my body immediately starts coughing. I feel like I’m being rude, and often, if I smell cigarettes, I just stop breathing until I can get away from it, if I can get away fast enough.

      1. Observer*

        If you breathe through your mouth, you don’t get any of the filtering benefit from your nose hairs, so it goes into your lungs unfiltered.

        True. But that applies to holing their nose, too.

    4. Elsa*

      And that is zero help when you are actually oversensitive/allergic, the airway still closes up even if you don’t smell it.

      1. Observer*

        Which is actually one of the reasons I’m pretty sure this person is hamming it up. Because neither putting your hand over your nose and mouth nor flapping around with a folder really helps in those situations. (BTDT with an extremely allergic kid.)

    5. biobotb*

      Of course the smells will go into your mouth! The scent compounds are in the air, they’ll be wherever you breathe them. Just because you, Crencestre, cannot taste them doesn’t mean they’re not in your mouth.

      In my experience, breathing through my mouth has never helped with noxious odors. Now I can smell AND taste them! Extra gross.

    6. Laura*

      Taste and smell are related senses though, so I’m not sure how well that will work. Also, most people breath through their nose and they’d have to consciously switch to breathing through their mouth and it’s not possible to do that all the time.

  18. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    Was she acting this way before the recently updated scent policy? Because if she wasn’t, then this isn’t about a scent sensitivity or disability. If she wasn’t doing it before when there was presumably more scents in the office, it’s a performance now. I wouldn’t give her the benefit of the doubt; I’d go straight to PIP on the behavior.

    1. Three Flowers*

      I agree with you about it being a performance issue if that’s the case…but straight to a PIP is a bit of a leap. A very stern discussion about policies, behavior, and the extreme rudeness of making a fuss over a change that makes the work environment bearable for people who need accommodations is certainly warranted.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!*

      You can develop scent issues. I used to love the downy scent boosters. Then at some point they just got to be too much. I had to throw them out. Even some fabric softeners and other room sprays can be too overpowering to me.
      So just because the employee didn’t have this reaction before, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

    3. Andromeda*

      eh, we’ve had people write in before about colleagues who suddenly became hypersensitive to smells — and it turned out that the colleague in question was pregnant! You can definitely also become sensitised, eg, to certain essential oils.

      Like Alison says, you kind of have to take her at face value that she actually is smelling *something*. Not just because telling a grown adult they are lying about a subjective experience (like pain or scent) is almost never appropriate, but also because there could be very real health issues there that colleague might not want to disclose.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      This is what I wondered: Was she doing this before, so is she reacting to scented shampoo/detergent/etc. or to the lack of them (body smells, cigarette smoke, whatever else people trail in from home).

      I mean, she should still act like an adult about it, but you can’t really address something if you don’t know what’s going on.

    5. ScentsNotMasked*

      Or the scented products people used to use were masking the smells causing the problems now, or the natural body scents of people who used to wear perfume but don’t now, or….

      There are legit reasons why this policy could trigger issues that didn’t exist before.

      Or they’re a jerk. But the first option is not wildly unlikely.

  19. LisaD*

    If the person is truly this fragrance-sensitive, is remote work an option for them? Offices will have scents sometimes even if nobody wears them. A family member of mine used to rent her spare room to a fragrance-sensitive person (who was quite lovely) and kept a scent-free home for the tenant’s comfort, but it’s very difficult even in a home to entirely avoid scented products. An entire office building seems like a nightmare.

  20. Astronaut Barbie*

    How does someone take a public facing job when they know they are THAT sensitive to smells?

    1. TraceMark*

      You would be astonished at the number of people who have no self awareness. Also, I would bet a dozen donuts that this person works in a library. We librarians are particularly bad about self-knowledge because I WaNt to WoRk wItH BoOkS! blinds us to the fact that 95% of the job is the people.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        We once interviewed a girl for a job as a kennel tech at a vet’s office, who said she had a hair-trigger gag reflex and was sensitive to odors. There were other red flags that allowed us to not hire her, but I cannot imagine what possessed her to apply in the first place.

      2. H.Regalis*

        I was thinking library too: Public-facing, service work, rotating desk shifts, and, sadly, also the passive-aggressiveness.

      3. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

        Was also going to say library. Lots of smelly patrons in your average library. Also, wouldn’t book editor be a better job if you like books but not people?

      4. Esmae*

        Even the books start to smell eventually! Mostly like cigarette smoke and whatever that general musty smell that children’s books get comes from. (Don’t tell me what it comes from, I’m happier not knowing).

    2. YetAnotherAnalyst*

      Because that was the job that was available when they needed a job? Public-facing jobs are a lot easier to find, in my experience, and many have fewer prerequisites than non-public-facing.

      1. TraceMark*

        Very good point. To my library example, a certain percentage of people get into libraries thinking they will do some of the behind-the-scenes type roles. There just aren’t that many of those.

        Also, there is a certain thing about libraries where people can end up viewing them through rose-colored glasses made of nostalgia or just their personal ideas of what libraries are/should be. Frequently, those ideas clash with library reality.

        Finally, I think some people just love libraries so much they choose to work in them even though they know it isn’t a good fit with their personality. But they think they can make it work – and, really, quite often they can. But sometimes they can’t, they are unhappy, and it comes out in being generally unpleasant to work with.

  21. Chaos Coordinator*

    I was a young supervisor of a child care program and an older woman worked for me. She already had trouble being supervised by a younger person and when I asked her to not apply her perfume before work (several families, students in our care, and co workers had complained about the strong scent), she said I was being agist and quit…. at least the smell was gone…

  22. Not So Super-visor*

    I once started a new job where the seating was in a pod/bullpen arrangements with 4 people in the pod. My new coworker insisted that she be allowed to smell my hair on my first day to ensure that my hair products weren’t “too smelly.” It was weird and awkward, but I let her do it b/c I didn’t know how to say no.

    1. Hyaline*

      What!?! If she couldn’t smell it from several feet away, it was not “too smelly”! Asking to get up close and personal to sniff you is truly bizarre.

    2. Observer*

      My new coworker insisted that she be allowed to smell my hair on my first day to ensure that my hair products weren’t “too smelly.”

      Good heavens! How did she get away with that?! I’d be willing to bet that she showed pretty bad judgement in other ways as well.

      This reminds me of the letter from someone whose book club leader wanted everyone to be hugged and sniffed to accommodate a scent sensitive club member. In the update, that LW mentions that it turns out that the club member had NOT asked for this measure, and was mortified.

      1. RagingADHD*

        She got away with because OP was too shocked to say no. The same way people have always gotten away with outrageous behavior.

        If you’re just mildly to moderately rude, intrusive, or overbearing, most people push back. If you go all-out, you can short-circuit people’s defenses and bowl them over while they are still trying to compute what just happened.

  23. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    Are they covering their mouth and nose “like a child” or are they covering their mouth and nose “like a person who doesn’t want to be nauseated the rest of the day”?

    1. Andromeda*

      The advice doesn’t really change either way — it sounds like there are other, better measures that the person could be taking with their employer (and with their other colleagues!) to deal with this. It’s embarrassing to have someone act like you smell bad, especially when their colleagues don’t realise there’s any smells going on at all.

    2. Nebula*

      It’s childish to make faces and gestures which imply that someone stinks rather than talking to the people in question about the issue.

    3. Ginger Cat Lady*

      Since one is performative and over the top, and one is real, I’m going to do what the site guidelines say and take the LW’s word that in this case, it’s the “like a child” version.

    4. martin blackwood*

      if her coworkers cant tell the difference and its nausea, she needs to use her words so she comes off as less rude!

    5. Hyaline*

      It is possible to subtly cover your nose and take other evasive maneuvers against scent without being over-the-top performative. If the LW says it’s over-the-top and performative, I think we have to accept that it is.

    6. SnackAttack*

      You can prevent yourself from inhaling a scent without dramatically covering your nose and mouth. When I don’t want to smell something, I either discretely hold my breath or just breathe through my mouth.

      1. Rebecca.*

        Since I need oxygen to live, I can’t hold my breath. How exactly is holding one’s nose dramatic? Is this person loudly announcing to the room that she is about to hold her nose and then collapsing on a fainting couch with her elbow raised to the sky? Or does she just … raise her hand to her face and hold her nose? The reactions here are way more dramatic than holding your nose is.

  24. Bast*

    How is this individual behaving for smelly customers? I’ve worked in customer facing roles and had customers who came in reeking of perfume, weed, BO, just about anything you can imagine, I’d smell it. Does this person react this way around smelly customers as well, or only colleagues? And is it specific people or does the target change? I think the reaction is over the top, childish, and needs to stop, but if someone is having these reactions around customers and colleagues alike, it is possible they are just super sensitive and reacting inappropriately (still needs to change) BUT if this seems to be targeted behavior then that’s a different story. The reaction almost seems bullying in a way, the kind of thing a middle schooler does when they are trying to be mean without saying a word, which makes me wonder about any underlying drama that the LW/other managers may not be aware of?

    1. Bast*

      As in, a reasonable colleague might ask, “Jane, are you wearing lotion or perfume today? I’m so sorry but something is setting me off over here” which may give Jane a chance to fix the problem rather than hacking and gagging and fanning their hands every time Jane walks near.

    2. Nebula*

      Yeah, I think this is a really key piece of information. It’s inappropriate either way, but if it’s just happening around coworkers it’s a different kettle of fish.

      1. allathian*

        I mean, if it’s happening around customers she could be fired for cause even in many places that aren’t at-will. A basic requirement of customer service jobs is treating your customers with respect, and holding your nose and grimacing in disgust when the customer has BO or uses too much perfume or whatever isn’t that.

        I’m not saying that treating your coworkers poorly is any more acceptable than treating your customers poorly is, but a lot of employers are much more invested in avoiding the latter than the former.

        I worked for years in retail in my teens and early twenties, and I’ve dealt with my share of stinky customers. It’s not fun, but it’s a part of the job.

  25. Hyaline*

    Makes me curious how this person handles other conflicts or issues at work–this feels extremely passive aggressive when her options included mentioning her sensitivity to others when something was bothering her or coming to management if she’s continuing to have problems with scented products. Instead she’s…miming in the elevator. I think you have to defaults to the assumption that she actually is having difficulty with one or more scents being used by coworkers (and not just being…weird?). They seem to need a direct and clear “this is how I want you to handle it when a scent bothers you” which would be coming to a manager or removing herself from the problematic space or whatever works for the situation, as well as long term brainstorming some kind of accommodation, while holding firm that as a public facing space she cannot expect all scents to be absent all the time (because that is truly outside the workplace’s control). I also wonder if she has specific reactions to specific people’s products. If so, ideally…as a grown adult, she should be able to say “Hey, Louise, your perfume is really lovely but I think it’s a migraine trigger for me” or “Jean, I’m sorry to intrude, but I think I’m allergic to something in a product you’re wearing.” But it looks like that’s not a viable option for her, so a manager running interference might be necessary to address specific concerns like this.

  26. Bad Wolf*

    Since early-onset menopause, I’ve been having really strong reactions to certain smells. Sanitizers, lotions, perfumes, shampoos. That sort of thing. I once vomited on a woman because she WOULD NOT give me space.
    Covering my nose and mouth with my own scarf helps a lot. Distancing myself from the person helps more. I will step off an elevator if I have to.
    I try to do it with a “it’s not you, it’s me” attitude. But to be honest, I don’t think I’m always successful. When nausea hits you like a load of bricks, it’s a feat of self-control not to let your face show it. My one saving grace is, at least for me, the sensitivity is supposed to subside once I’m on the other side of ‘the change.’
    I can’t tell how rude your employee is in her interactions. Perhaps her coworkers feel more offended than they need to be. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been forced to accommodate someone and it’s still not enough. So they feel their efforts are not appreciated.
    I don’t have suggestions for what to do besides perhaps approach it with a little compassion.

    1. Spicy Tuna*

      For some reason, the smell of McDonald’s makes me gag. There was a McD’s across the street from my office and if someone got on the elevator with a bag from McD’s, I would have to immediately get off the elevator!

      1. Delta Delta*

        For me it’s Cinnabon. That sticky-sweet smell makes me immediately gag. I have to run past them in airports.

    2. Observer*

      I think you are being unfair here. The LW is clearly trying to be compassionate. And they are also clearly working to make sure that people comply. But the description of the behavior is not about someone who is being hit by something unexpected. They are making a big show when getting on to an elevator where no one else can smell anything or moving to an *empty* desk where no one else can smell the supposed residual smell.

      If the person had asked for a fan or a HEPA filter that they can take with them because they are hyper sensitive, and had been refused then I could understand why they would make a big show. But like this? Making a show – that is also ineffective – is not a reasonable way to handle the situation. Nor is it something that shows any good faith.

  27. Spicy Tuna*

    I am not that sensitive to scents but I attract scents – meaning that any small amount of scent gets amplified big time on my person. Therefore, I tend to avoid all scents. However, I cannot avoid picking up a scent if I’m in a place that is aromatic. So, for example, I reek like barbeque if I go to a restaurant with a wood fired oven. Or, if I am around cigarettes, I smell like an ashtray all day.

    I used to walk to work, and when I first started my job, I would naturally pick up cigarette odors from my walk to the office. I had been there about a week and my new boss asked if I was a smoker. I wanted to die! I run marathons! I DO NOT SMOKE! I had to explain I pick up scents very easily and I got it from my walk to work but I’m not sure he bought it as the scent was really strong on me!

  28. Less sexy more librarian*

    The last letter reminds me of the LW whose coworker had an issue with her shampoo that she used for her curly hair. I loved the update to that letter! It remains a favorite entry for me.

  29. Kelly With A Why*

    I am *extremely* sensitive to smells, including both perfumes and body odors. I do occasionally put my hand in front of my face if I’m near someone whose scent/odor is bothering me, but I try to do it discreetly and pretend I’m scratching my nose or yawning or something like that. Wafting the air is completely performative and unnecessary.

    1. Rara Avis*

      I have become increasingly sensitive to scents, particularly strong floral ones. On one occasion my grand-boss sat down next to me and I knew I wouldn’t make it through the meeting due to the strength of his cologne. Which may or may not have been completely reasonable to a non-sensitive person. My main symptom is coughing, and once I start, it’s really hard to stop. So I got up out of my (assigned) seat and went to sit somewhere else. I’m sure it read as rude, since I didn’t think quickly enough to fake a reason for moving. But it seemed like the better option than coughing my way through the whole meeting.

  30. Dinwar*

    I’m somewhat astonished by the hostility towards the LW here. I fully understand that some people are more sensitive than others to odor–I’m nearly anosmic (meaning I can’t smell 99% of anything; makes cooking really fun), whereas my wife’s sense of smell is better than that of a Malamute and a Belgian Shepherd (we tested it). But still, there’s such a thing as professionalism. There are reasonable avenues for informing one’s boss that certain smells are still overpowering to you. Gesticulating and making faces are not among those ways.

    Gestures are communication, just as much as words are. And what this employee is doing is the equivalent of going up to fellow employees and saying “You stink!” every time they walk up to them. Even if this employee is experiencing discomfort, this would still qualify as inappropriate behavior. And it needs to stop–just as much as it would need to stop of they were calling someone “Stinky” or putting notes on people’s desks telling them they smell or any other immature antics.

    Sure, this employee may be uncomfortable with the odors. However, we should not discount the discomfort they are causing their fellow employees. Again, I’m anosmic. I have NO IDEA what I smell like, any more than a deaf person knows that their speech is slurred or a blind person knows that their cloths are miss-matched. Having someone make such gesticulations at me every time we interact is absolutely going to come across as mocking me for what is, in fact, a disability. Why would this employee’s desire to mock me trump my right to not be mocked at work? And it doesn’t need to be as bad as my issue; some people simply can’t smell certain things (1 in 1,000 can’t smell skunk spray, for example).

    Once that’s dealt with, the question of why this employee is doing this becomes appropriate to ask. If they really are that sensitive, sure, make accommodations. Maybe this employee needs to wear a mask, or can work from home, or whatever. But I’d wager that this isn’t the case. I’d bet descent money that they’re objecting, not to any sensory experience, but to the policy, or to a perceived violation thereof. And if that’s the case, the issue isn’t smell, it’s insubordination and bullying. The third option is that the employee may not believe management is open to discussion on this topic and has decided that melodrama is the best way to draw attention to it. That’s still bad, but it does indicate that there’s a lack of communication and trust between the employees and management that needs to be worked on. (Note that these are not an exhaustive list and it’s not mutually exclusive.)

  31. Tradd*

    Question about these fragrance policies as I’ve never encountered one at any workplace I’ve been at:

    Are ALL employees supposed to forgo ANYTHING scented? aka no scented lotion, soap, deodorant, laundry detergent/dryer sheets, etc.? What about things like shampoo/conditioner/hair spray/gel that may not have specific scents, but may still have a lingering smell?

    What if someone has a medically prescribed lotion, for example, for a skin condition, and it has a scent that someone is sensitive to? Whose needs trump the other?

    I’m genuinely curious.

    1. edda ed*

      You can probably read more about those workplaces in the “you may also like” links, but also, today’s letter concerns a workplace that specifically doesn’t blanket ban every product that may or may not have scent. Ditto about your 2nd question, do a site search on AAM for the term “dueling accommodations.”

    2. Hyaline*

      It sounds like (from upthread) this particular policy is “happy medium” that people are not required to go 100% scent free but should not wear overly scented products to work. (So they’re not being asked to, say, switch shampoos or laundry detergents but are not supposed to load up on cologne before work.)

      But the larger question–whose needs trump whose and just how far should/do these policies go–is a good one. I once worked in a building with someone who was very sensitive to scent, which I am sympathetic to, being fairly sensitive myself, but she bullied an entire wing into complying with ever-increasing demands on forgoing scent. We worked with students and she’d make students wearing scented products leave other people’s offices–that was, IMO, an overstep. It was a weird grey area because of course no one wanted to trigger a migraine for her with a scented product, but it was also not a realistic way to look at living and working in the world (and also she was not nice, hence the bullying attitude she took toward it).

    3. allathian*

      My employer has a scent-free policy. It basically means that we aren’t allowed to wear cologne, perfume, or body spray, or apply scented lotions etc. at the office. If people go to the gym or for a run on their lunch break, they have to make sure their shampooed hair is completely dry before returning to the office because wet newly washed hair smells much more than dry hair does.

      We are allowed to use scented laundry detergent and whatever body lotions and deodorants we want as long as we apply them at home.

      We’re officially hybrid now and my office is downsizing as a consequence, meaning that the vast majority of employees don’t have an assigned desk. This includes managers and directors, with the President and his PA among the few exceptions. A few employees have customized workstations, and they will retain their assigned desks. Some departments have their designated office space but most of those don’t have assigned desks for employees.

      All this to say that in most cases, if someone needs to use, say, a medical cream that triggers another employee’s allergy/scent sensitivity, it’s usually fairly easy to ensure that they don’t need to share airspace often. It’s not as if the hand cream could be smelled 300 ft away (the length of our office building).

  32. Observer*

    LW, I just want to address one thing.

    You write that (It feels weird to think of saying, “Don’t cover your nose and mouth like a child when your coworkers step into the elevator,” but do I need to be on that level? Can I “police” someone’s reactions on that level?

    I get it! I really do – I just had a similar discussion with another staff member where we had to navigate managing people’s behavior. Their issue, understandably! is that they don’t want to treat people like toddlers. And I totally agree. But if someone is behaving like a toddler, you really don’t have much choice.

    And, yes, you absolutely DO have the standing to “police” someone to that level. It should not be necessary, but in a case like this, you can and should do it. Because it’s not an issue of they are doing one small thing that you don’t like, but rather an issue of being performatively rude. And if it takes getting into this level of detail to get it to stop, that’s what you do.

  33. Taketombo*

    I have numerous chemical sensitivities including most petroleum based fragrances. Which has led to psycho-somatic headaches when exposed to natural fragrances in unexpected locations (think lilies in the break room vs lilies on my dining table) because “I can smell it” = “I am dizzy, nauseous, and I have a headache.”

    Being allowed, even encouraged, to wear a respirator mask in public was a game-changer. I still mask in the office if I’m not feeling well or on Wednesdays (I have a very fragrant neighbor in the hotelling space on Wednesdays)

    I’ve worked at fragrance free offices in the past, but employers are hesitant to talk to the offenders (and the worst headaches may not be the strongest smelling ones!), the cleaning contract changes and now the hand soap in the bathroom gives me headache and hives, etc. etc. It’s really easier and more effective to do what you can for yourself – especially bringing your own soap and wearing a mask – than to suffer or complain.

    Now, since this isn’t a personal question – you have an employee – I’d go with Allison’s scripts for bringing it up. But I want you to know that there are a lot of effective masks on the market, and they have solved this problem for me, so it’s not an unreasonable response.

  34. ReallyBadPerson*

    There are actually some pricey laundry products out there. They make all sorts of claims about their ecologically sound properties, as well as their superior scents. I’ve fallen for these claims, only to discover that they are crap. I’m now in the scent-free Tide camp.

  35. Adds*

    Did we determine if this employee was reacting to what they interpret as BO now that perfumes and scented lotions are discouraged at work or if the implication is they’re upset because they still perceive fragranced personal products after the policy was enacted?

    I read it to mean they were reacting to what they think is BO. This could mean either they’re super sensitive to just the smell of people, or this is a demonstration of disagreement with the fragrance policy (“Ew, now that you’ve banned perfumes, everyone smells like BO!”). Either way, you’d probably want to talk to this person… as adults we don’t make scenes in public about other people’s BO, it’s rude. Or if this is their way of saying they don’t like the new policy that warrants a discussion on behavior as well.

    1. edda ed*

      As I understand it, it’s not specified. Maybe the employee perceives added fragrances (e.g, cologne, perfume, etc.), maybe they perceive natural human “fragrance”/BO (and are thus protesting the new policy under the reasoning that fragrances should be allowed to cover the natural human smell). Either possibility sound plausible to me, but the letter doesn’t specify and I don’t think LW themselves has elaborated yet. I also don’t think it changes the applicable advice, though.

  36. dawbs*

    I’m disappointed the comments section has a lot of folks who seem eager to dismiss people who react as performing–instead of acknowledging difference in experiences (after all, my dad thinks mild salsa is spicy, and his grandson thinks ghost pepper cheese is a perfect snack)–and I say that as someone who delivered a lecture on “yes, we try not to comment on bathroom smells because that’s part of privacy and, as gross as it might be, that’s what they’re for” this week.

    As the parent of a nerodivergent kid, I’ve had to explain repeatedly that the ONLY reason I don’t cover my ears more is because it’s not socially acceptable–but maybe her generation treating “hugging your head because the thing around you is causing huge amounts of pain” is preferable and maybe we can lean more that way. (and, as the OT who has been seeing us, weekly, for dealing w/ the neurotypical world for the last 7 years says, “you can block things you see or hear. You can chose not to touch or eat a lot of things. But smelling things is essential to breathing, so essential to to living”

    Rather like I tell my students, when they’re acting out, their emotions are valid–but we still need to control our behavior and words (sometimes even the non-verbal words).
    I think we’d be much farther ahead to, as Alison says, take them at face value and find solutions. Like several people mentioned, masks are amazing–my ‘sensory toolbox’ for students contains (next to the ear defenders and sunglasses) a variety of masks and a variety of ‘smells’ that can be put in them–if you put a few drops of vanilla extract on a cotton round, it can go inside the mask. Or smudge a cherry chapstick on the upper lip generously (or if you have to share said chapstick on the inside of a disposable mask), you can drown out a multitude of smells.

    So, my own script to a student or employee of mine would probably be “you may not be aware of it, but your body language when X happens is off-putting. It sends a message to people, and we want to make sure that employees are approachable so I’d like to work on this with you. I understand smells can be hard to control, I can make sure masks are available and acceptable to wear at all times. Are there other tools that would help you with this?” and go from there.

    1. Moose*

      I am a neuro-divergent adult and if you approached me like a child saying things like “you may not be aware of it, but your body language when X happens is off-putting. It sends a message to people, and we want to make sure that employees are approachable so I’d like to work on this with you” I would be filing an HR complaint against you so fast your head would spin. This type of language may work for children but it is definitely not for most (if any) adults.

      1. basically functional*

        I’m honestly confused. What is it about this script that would make you feel your manager was approaching you like a child? It seems straightforward and reasonable to me.

    2. Observer*

      I think we’d be much farther ahead to, as Alison says, take them at face value and find solutions

      See, that’s the problem and a large part of the reason why so many of us think that this person is being performative. *You* are suggesting possible solutions. And what’s more they are solutions that don’t require people to go to great lengths to accommodate you. But that is distinctly NOT what this person is doing.

      their emotions are valid–but we still need to control our behavior and words (sometimes even the non-verbal words).

      True. And any attempt to control behavior is not happening with this person, at least around their coworkers.

    3. Rebecca.*

      “As the parent of a nerodivergent kid, I’ve had to explain repeatedly that the ONLY reason I don’t cover my ears more is because it’s not socially acceptable”

      The best part of middle age is running out of bothers to give about what is socially acceptable. Sounds hurting my ears? I cover them. Lights hurting my eyes? I close or shade them. Scents hurting my sinuses? I hold my nose and cover my mouth.

  37. The cubes are scary*

    I had a coworker who used to tell me LOUDLY at least twice a day “YOU STINK”. It was addressed by various supervisors and managers up the chain of command but she ignored them all and nothing was done.

    Until I became their supervisor and it amazingly stopped.

    They were a challenging person to supervise, but they were my only employee who could be trusted to do their job, thoroughly and efficiently, every day of the year. It was their behavior when they weren’t working that was the problem. Few things worse than an efficient bully.

  38. Moose*

    Alison’s is perfect. It’s direct, to the point, and it is something one adult would say to another adult.

    When you’re neuro-divergent, people feel like they need to change how they talk to you, and often they start talking down to you. If it’s not something you would say to someone you assume is neurotypical, you probably shouldn’t be saying it to someone you assume is neuro-divergent. Unless you know the neuro-divergent person needs a very specific type of verbal support, they should be spoken to like fellow adults and not like children. And, under no circumstances, should you assume someone needs a specific verbal support based off vague vibes that they’re neuro-divergent.

  39. PlainJane*

    Judging by an article I was reading yesterday, workplaces might have to get used to scents again. Apparently, it’s THE thing among affluent tween boys (you read that right) to become experts with men’s colognes–to learn all the big designer names, choose the right seasonal scents, etc. That… is the kind of thing that is likely to follow them into adulthood and the workplace.

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