Business Columns & Blogs

In the workplace: Scents and sensitivities

Here are two workplace issues from my inbox. They may not bother you, but they’re a big deal to some people. The first pops up repeatedly.

“Last week I was in my new boss’s office for a meeting with the door closed,” one worker wrote. “After half an hour, I could not breathe from what I thought was her perfume.”

Later, the writer learned the smell came from an air freshener, but the source didn’t matter. She’s one of thousands of people who are physically sensitive to scents. In this case, she got a bad migraine and had to leave work early.

Scent sensitivity goes far beyond simply not liking the way something smells. For affected people, even perfumed advertising inserts in magazines can cause headaches. And when exposed to scents, especially in enclosed spaces, they get sick.

In some ways, this problem is easier to deal with than, say, having to sit next to someone with offensive body odor. It’s a difficult conversation to tell someone he or she stinks. But in the case of scent sensitivity, there shouldn’t be any barrier to saying, “I have a favor to ask. Perfumes (or air fresheners) make me really ill. Could you please not wear (or use) it here?”

It would be a truly callous person to ignore the request after it was explained. If the request gets fought or ignored, every worker has the right to take the request higher in the management ranks. If resolution isn’t achieved, it’s probably time to begin a job search. Why would you want to continue committing hours to environments that literally make you sick?

Crossing the email line?

The second issue won’t be as easy to deal with. That’s because there isn’t a clear health condition or a clear workplace courtesy involved.

The writer received a work-related email response from a co-worker who used her personal cellphone to reply. Happens all the time, right? We’re in a linked and synced communication world, and many of us answer emails from wherever and however it’s convenient.

The thing that prompted the writer’s question was the signature line that accompanied the reply. The co-worker’s response template included a very personal religious statement. Again, this was sent from a personal cellphone, and the user has every right to share her beliefs.

But was it OK to do it on a work-related email, the writer asked? It wasn’t so much that she rebelled against a person’s right to proselytize or broadcast a belief. Rather, she was concerned that it was wrong when attached to work-related communication.

Here’s a case where I’d say to ignore it. If the response were headed outside the company, it’s worth a conversation to make sure the organization is OK with it. But if it’s simply an exchange between co-workers, it’s not worth stewing about.

Just be grateful that a needed response was received in a timely way.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star., 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,