Body Odor and Other Common Scents
Copyright © 2005-2007 by Ethan A. Winning
We must have become a nation of stinkers in just the past three or four years. At least that's the assumption that one could make if you read my email from supervisors, or look at the bulletin boards at Workforceonline and SHRM. Literally hundreds of managers have been recently confronted with complaints by others of fellow employees who smell badly. Add to the questions about BO questions about employees wearing perfume or cologne which may or may not be overpowering and you have a scent-consciousness far beyond my experiences over the past three decades.
My first experience was in the late 60's and, like an ensign in the navy, I was delegated the problem of telling a female employee that she was emitting an aroma which was not pleasant to other employees. It was also my responsibility to solve the problem, like I knew what to do.
Credit where credit is due: her fellow employees had left all manner of hints on and in her desk. No notes. Nothing direct. A can of FDS. Ban roll-on. (There was some discussion as to what type of odor this was.) My immediate reaction was to pass this task on to a woman Personnel Officer, but both of them declined.
I did then what I advise everyone else to do now. My first step was to contact a doctor friend of mine who proceeded to give me a list of a dozen or so diseases which could cause such BO. He also mentioned diet, but he said that, in all probability, such body odor was caused by bacteria.
I called the employee in and, though undoubtedly more nervous than she, forged ahead.
"Uh, Melissa, I've received several complaints about...er...uh...the fact that er...you...uh... have a certain air about you. I was asked to speak to you about this problem. What I mean is that...do you know that you have a problem with body odor?"
"So that's what all those 'hints' were about. Yes, I know I've got a problem. I've used all kinds of stuff and I shower twice a day."
"Then, obviously this concerns you. I've spoken to a friend of mine who is a doctor. He told me that, aside from bacteria, there are a number of illnesses or 'disorders' which could also cause the problem. Or it could be diet. Would you be willing to see a doctor? The company will pay for the visit, or whatever the insurance won't cover. And, of course, you can take the day off for the exam."
She agreed, and set an appointment. A week later the problem was solved, no real thanks to me. Because her problem was one of an infection and diet, this was relatively easy. More difficult -- much more difficult - is the problem with an employee who does not bathe.
Success breeds more responsibility. It was natural that, from that point on, any employee with a body odor problem was sent to me. (Let this be a warning. Always give credit to someone else.) Sure enough, my third employee with a problem was one who didn't bathe. I was prepared. I was going to be strong. I had the answers.
When confronted, he said that it was against his religious beliefs to bathe more than once a week! And I, like a fool, said I'd never heard of any such religion. What followed was a discussion of civil rights and religious discrimination and enough other garbage to really create a stink. But I stood firm, not an easy feat with the breeze wafting from employee to me.
He was told that, because his body odor was creating problems with the work flow and with other employees, it was up to him to choose between the job and his "religious beliefs." He was also told that, if he wanted, our corporate attorney was available for a consultation that very afternoon. (A bluff, but one which could be quickly remedied since our corporate attorney was in the same building...and available.)
The employee's decision was to quit. At the unemployment hearing, he voiced his objections, and the company still won. I don't know what the outcome would be today, but probably it would be very much the same as in 1973.
That was my last "case." I hired someone to whom I could delegate any other occurrences. I'm sure he'd thank me if he was still talking to me or could find me.
Advice? Sure. First, have any such discussions in private. List the possibilities and allow the employee to "save face." Go to your phone book ahead of time and get a list of doctors who might be able to "diagnose" the problem, although you should always allow the employee to see his or her own doctor. Allow time off and pay for the exam. Small loss considering the nature of the problem.
So, what do you do if the doctor says that s/he can find nothing to cause the problem and the employee says that s/he bathes on a daily basis? I'm not crazy about the alternatives, but a leave of absence or a termination with severance may be the only remedies. And that brings me to my last point...
We've also heard about quite a few cases of employees overusing perfume or cologne or some other scent. Now, it so happens that I have one of the most sensitive noses. I can smell a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie at 100 yards.
An acquaintance I play racquetball with -- we'll call him Mal - used to wear something with the word "musk" in it. (I can't believe that that could excite a moose, let alone a woman, but that's neither here nor there.) While everyone else seemed to be able to play with Mal, I couldn't be in an enclosed room with him. Even an hour's worth of sweat couldn't mask his musk. Finally, I just had to say something to him, so I told him that I was too good a player and that I was moving on up. He took umbrage at my excuse (I'd be rich if I could sell umbrage to people I talk to), and I haven't seen ol' Mal in quite a while.
The point is that I've got quite a sense of smell. What happens when one employee says that she can't stand the perfume that another is wearing, but I can't smell a thing? Well, the first thing that happens is that I think that the complainer is one of those who says that she can't be in a room anywhere where another person is wearing any kind of scent. I'm sure that there must be one or two documented cases of such individuals existing, people who have to live in sterile bubbles in sterile suburbs, but I've never met one.
The answer here may lie in majority rule. If one employee complains, I wouldn't do anything, and I'll let the attorneys fight over an ADA case which should have no merit. If two or more employees complain, I'd counsel the one who reeks of Chanel or whatever people wear nowadays. And the counseling is pretty much the same as with the employee who has BO except that a doctor isn't needed, just some common sense. "The perfume you are wearing is disturbing others in the department (or, if on an assembly line, case closed). Please either tone down the amount or stop wearing any scent to work."
In other words, be sensitive to the employee's feelings, but remember that the goal is to get everyone to be productive. Don't diagnose, just move the individual in a direction which will achieve the results that you're after. And yes, if necessary, terminate. Just exhaust all of your administrative remedies first.