Reader: My department has a fragrance-free policy. Recently, in front of everyone, my boss came over, sniffed me and said there had been complaints that I was wearing patchouli.
Here’s the thing: I was not wearing perfume or scented lotion. I definitely was not wearing and had not come into contact with any patchouli products. I have been using the same hair and face products for months or years, and my laundry habits have not changed. No one in my household smokes or wears fragrance.
The day before, I had noticed some co-workers whispering about a smell, and a few of them kept looking at me. I overheard one person mention smelling burned toast and another vanilla, so it seems there wasn’t really a consensus. After my boss sniffed me, one of the whisperers kept publicly insisting that I smelled. I later checked with two other co-workers who said they smelled nothing; one said she smelled something faint, like shampoo, only when she was close enough to touch me.
I think this might be about some highly sensitive noses (it’s always the same two people who have issues) and a boss who is trying to make sure no scents exist at work. Others who have been treated in this manner (which almost felt like harassment to me) ended up crying in the bathroom and eventually transferred. I have no desire to do either. How much more do I have to do to comply with this policy?
Karla: Maybe this is just a well-intentioned policy gone awry — or maybe it’s a case of bullies exploiting a zero-tolerance policy to target people they don’t like. The snitch-and-sniff routine definitely sounds like harassment, especially if it’s driving workers out in tears. In any case, your boss’s response to complaints from the Bloodhound Gang is hamhanded, bordering on hostile.
If you have an HR team, notify them that you have experienced and documented an ongoing pattern in which workers are being subjected to gossip and invasive public inspections. If nothing else, your overzealous boss should be instructed to refer future alleged violators to HR for objective confirmation and discreet counseling. HR may even decide that your department’s fragrance-free fiat needs an arm’s-length standard.
Next time you or another scent-free innocent stands accused, crank up the volume against the whisper campaign: “Hmm, that’s odd — I haven’t worn any scented products at work for years,” or, “I don’t smell anything like that — does anyone else?” If enough workers start pushing back — or even comically circling and sniffing each other like dogs at a park — the boss may decide that appeasing two people with their noses out of joint is not worth the stink it raises.
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.