My Coworker Stinks and Other Office Olfactory Offenses

My Coworker Stinks

HR professionals are often tasked with dealing with some very unpleasant circumstances – mass layoffs, negative performance reviews, disciplinary plans and terminations of individual employees.  When you have a vast number of diverse people all working in close proximity to each other, personality conflicts and other personal preferences can also lead to strife that requires an HR intervention.  One such realm that can be highly sensitive for all parties involved stems from certain scents and/or smells. In some cases, for employees with respiratory issues or severe allergies, the situation could be life threatening.

When it comes to workplace assaults on the nose, dealing with these issues can really stink for managers and HR.  Following are some reasons why your employees may think your office and/or their coworkers are foul and some suggestions on how to address it.

Heating and Eating Pungent Foods

Having once worked in an office where someone religiously ate a microwaved baked potato and topped it with a can of tuna fish everyday, smelly foods makes the top of this list for this writer.  It can be exponentially bad for any pregnant coworkers or those with a heightened sense of smell.  In this case, your best defense will be a good offense.  Get ahead of this problem and/or address it head on by creating a list of foods that should not be prepared and/or eaten in the share kitchen facilities or while sitting at ones desk.  Here are some common offenders that you can include:

  1. Fish and other seafood
  2. Eggs
  3. Fried foods
  4. Foods with lots of spices
  5. Sauerkraut, cabbage, cooked broccoli, onions and garlic and foods with other strong scents
  6. Stinky cheeses or lunch meats
  7. Potentially tree nuts could make the list if any employees are severely allergic

An alternative to banning these items may be to offer an outdoor kitchen and/or eating area if your office is located in a climate suitable for it and/or during warmer seasons.

Kitchen and Trash Can Science Projects

Offering communal kitchen facilities is both an attractor and a deterrent for employee satisfaction.  Many appreciate the convenience (and savings) of being able to bring a variety of foods from home to eat in the office and enjoy the chance to socialize with peers during a downtime period.  However, much like with a roommate, differences in cleanliness habits can start to wear on everyone.  Unfortunately, the office refrigerator often bears the brunt of this when forgotten condiments, meals and other items push limits beyond their shelf life and become a breeding ground for new life forms and scents.

The same is true of trash cans within cubicles and/or offices that are not disposed of on a nightly basis.  Yesterdays’ empty greek yogurt container can mount a sneak attack the next morning when its odor permeates the office HVAC system and neighboring co-worker spaces.

If you have a communal kitchen, make sure you also have a communal employee cleaning schedule and that requires all employees take a turn to prevent your office from being the subject of a future episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy.  This should include a regularly-scheduled complete clean out of the entire fridge where any contents are discarded (with proper notification to all staff).  This can either be performed as part of employee “kitchen duty” on your revolving schedule or might be a task best assigned to your cleaning company.

If you permit employees to eat at their workspaces, be sure to include provisions in your handbook that either require workers to dispose of food containers immediately and only in the kitchen trash (you can cite the need to present a pleasant environment for clients and guests at all times) or that workers are responsible for taking their office trash to a larger receptacle that is emptied each evening.

Body Odor, Bad Breath and Other Bodily Functions

Probably one of the most dreaded tasks in managing employees is the discomfort of having to address personal grooming habits.  Whether it is due to lack of deodorant, halitosis or personal habits, the matter needs to be addressed sensitively, tactfully and discretely to avoid embarrassment on all fronts. Including grooming standards in your handbook unfortunately does not always prevent the problem, but it can provide a basis of discussion when you do need to speak with an employee about how their personal odors may be creating problems for his/her coworkers.

The best way to broach the subject is really to be just honest and, most importantly, do it in private.  Try starting with something like, “This is a very uncomfortable subject for me to bring up, however, we have been approached by a few people regarding _______. Is this something that you think you can take care of maybe by trying _______?”  This is really a subject that you will want to plan out well in advance what you are going to say and truly ask yourself, “if it were me, what would I want to hear?”

You will, of course, need to take into account the potential for culture differences and/or health issues which may require reasonable accomodations.

Perfumes, Lotions and Other Scented Personal Care Items

Perfumes, lotions, air fresheners and potpourri come in a wide variety of scents because people have such polarizing opinions on what smells pleasant and what they think does not.  In order to avoid conflicts (including the individuals that tend to be more heavy-handed in their use), the best approach is simply to have a scent-free office. This is especially true when you have individual workers with respiratory health issues and/or pregnant workers or others whose senses of smell are heightened and may induce nausea or other problems.  The American Lung Association has a template policy that includes language for employees as well as outside vendors, clients and other guests to aid employers in implementing a fragrance-free workplace. Click here to view a copy.

Whether you have existing policies in place for your office, wish to update current policies or institute something new all together, it is important to make certain that all employees read them once they officially become part of your employee handbook. With a solution such as CheckmateHCM, you can mass distribute and electronically track receipt and acknowledgements of existing policies or policy updates with a few easy steps as part of your streamlined and automated onboarding and HR protocols. Our HR Support Center also include training materials and access to legal regulations and HR advisory resources to help in developing and drafting policy language that best suits your corporate culture.

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