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Work Advice: What’s that smell? Aromas in the office can cause all sorts of headaches.

August 22, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Reader 1: I've accepted a substantial position as a director in a very large school division. On my first day at work, I noticed a large sign that read, "No scents allowed."

I consider myself fashion forward, and I use my style to exude my creativity. I can't imagine not wearing perfume to work. Would it be wrong if I continue to do so, yet in a subtle way? Would people tolerate me if my perfume was pleasant? Would someone really confront the director with a stink?

Karla: Well, this brings new meaning to the phrase “rank privilege.”

I’m afraid there’s no “subtle way” to violate a straightforward policy, any more than smokers can successfully bypass smoking bans by covering their tracks with Febreze and Tic Tacs. Just because you enjoy or hardly notice a fragrance doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for others.

And I do mean a problem. Individuals with allergies or physical sensitivities to chemicals can suffer headaches, dizziness, nausea, even breathing problems. Those physical reactions can be triggered by fragrances at all price points — not to mention scented shampoos, lotions, candles and diffusers.

You may be right that others would have too much respect for your position to complain to your face about your perfume. But that doesn’t mean they won’t complain about you. And however much people like you or admire your taste, you can’t be an effective leader if being near you makes them physically ill.

So I recommend that you forgo the fragrance, as a courtesy and a kindness to your colleagues. While managerial status has its privileges, the attendant responsibilities include leading by example — and to look beyond the end of one’s nose.

Related: [A scent-free policy that doesn’t pass the smell test]

Related: [Your boss’s e-cigarette vapor isn’t ‘just steam’]

Related: [Can a morning-sickness sufferer seek a ban on smelly food?]

Reader 2: My office is going through a major renovation. Since we moved back to the renovated space, there have been several incidents of people feeling sick. I felt dizzy at the end of the day for weeks. One woman suffered from an allergy so bad she couldn't breathe, and many others suffered from headaches and migraines. We have complained to HR and the facility managers, but we still have not received a reply or seen an air-quality report for our workspace. I'm thinking there's something fishy going on. What else can we do to get answers?

Karla: Since HR isn’t responding, here are some other offices you and your colleagues should contact:

1. Your doctor’s, to confirm and document your health issues.

2. The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha.gov; 800-321-6742) or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ( ) to file a confidential complaint and request a workplace inspection or health hazard evaluation.

Related: [Printer’s smell makes worker sick]

READER QUERY: Have the approaching midterm elections affected the political atmosphere in your workplace?

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com. Read more Work Advice columns.

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

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Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


Karla L. Miller offers weekly advice on workplace dramas and traumas. You can send her questions at work.advice.wapo@gmail.com.

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