We’re introducing a new column on the blog called “The Millennial vs. The Other (ahem, older) Generation.” Emily Buerk, our resident millennial, and Shawn Menke, a member of the vaguely older ‘other generation’ are going to regularly give us their take on an important issues of office life and etiquette, and we get to see how their views differ. This time, they’re taking on office smells.
Burnt Popcorn. Jimmy’s 15 sprays of cologne. The office bathroom. Literally every smell in the break room. Office odors are EVERYWHERE and some days it seems like you cannot escape them. But what do you do when the Jimmy Choo perfume or Jimmy’s poo in the bathroom starts to affect your work environment?
Situation One: Environmental Smells
Shawn, from the “other” generations take:
Tell me if this sounds familiar. I’m running late for a 1:00 PM meeting and step into the restroom. Upon entering I see Jimmy’s shoes below the bathroom partition. Oh boy, here we go again.
Holy mother of air freshener, the paint is peeling from the walls. I’m praying that I make it out alive. As I step to the sink and start to wash my hands, in walks the boss. Of course. After a few uncomfortable pleasantries, I can feel his eye’s burn a hole in my soul. No words are necessary, I know what he’s thinking. He thinks I’m the one responsible and that I need to see a doctor.
A bit over the top? Maybe, but we’ve all had the dreadful work experience of getting hit in the face with questionable smells. We’re all human, but it can be distracting or embarrassing in a corporate environment. Being such a touchy topic, how does one address it in the office?
The acts of Jimmy may sound funny (or not), but actual damages have been won by workers who sued their employers over such smells. In a 2005 court case, a disc jockey with a medical condition was awarded over $10 Million after she claimed a perfume allergy was not taken seriously.
There are ways we can reduce the disruption without making a coworker feel like an outcast. We spend on average 2,000 hours a year with our coworkers. Policing putrid odors in the office should not be one of the challenges we have to deal with on a daily basis. Raise your hand and stand up in the fight for workplace nasal abuse. Don’t suffer in silence!
Emily, our resident millennials take:
I get it. Work can be super stressful. We all want to have things around us to help us relax and to make work feel a bit more like home. For me, if I could have a vanilla scented candle burning for 8 hours a day in my office, I would. But I know the 3 others who work close around me who won’t enjoy smelling that all day. It’s also a fire hazard (probably). So, I leave the relaxing scent of vanilla for my home where I can enjoy it my own space, away from other people. For some reason, many others don’t apply the same logic. Even more so now that relaxing scents and essential oils are all the rage as a holistic remedy for stress relief, health problems, and hundreds of other things I’m not even aware of.
I enjoy the relaxing scent of mint, or eucalyptus, for a sinus headache (I’m getting some Vick’s Vapor Rub vibes right now). But I wouldn’t go to work and inflict that smell around the office. Now I’m diffusing eucalyptus essential oil in my office to help my “sinus infection” that I’ve have had for 6 weeks now while Cindy is diffusing lemon oil so her office can smell “fresh”. To me, this all smells like one big headache! Not only are those both very pungent scents, but not seeing what is going on and who is around you is causing your office to smell like a Bath & Body Works exploded.
I say leave the essential oil diffusing for bedtime, and just keep a bottle on your desk to smell on occasion. Not everyone wants to smell Vick’s Vapor Rub all day, so be thoughtful of those around you.
Situation Two: Jimmy Ahhhh-Choooooo!
Imagine it’s winter and you’re cooped up in the office trying to avoid the dreaded office plague. In walks your office neighbor wearing what would be a pleasant scent when it’s not applied by the gallon. Immediately you start sneezing, and the culprit sticks her head around the corner and says, “I hope you don’t get us all sick, maybe you should go home.” Your blood starts to boil, ready to square off until you remember your breathing exercises and start counting to 10!
I might handle this by asking the office neighbor out to lunch. After a couple of bites of Sushi, I’d let her know that I appreciate her style but the additional sprays of Jimmy Choo are causing my central nervous system to shut down. Most adults will feel compassionate enough to tone it down. If not, then make a complaint to the HR office and or a manager.
This topic is a classic. “Over spraying” has been an issue since middle school when boys discovered what Axe was but not how to use it correctly. Overdoing the perfume or cologne is a HUGE no-no. If you thought too much essential oil causes headaches, try sitting next to someone who thinks the “correct amount of perfume” is somewhere between 17-19 sprays.
But hey, I am not claiming innocence here. I had a phase when not only did I have the Daisy by Marc Jacobs perfume (which is still a top fav of mine, BTW), but I had the matching lotion. And you better believe that every time I wore that perfume, I rubbed a considerable amount of that same lotion on as well to “reinforce the scent”. If you thought one-too-many perfume sprays was bad, try being me with the scent lathered into my skin, too. The worst part was that I was so nose-blind to it, I couldn’t even tell it was overdone. Thankfully, I have a very kind sister who told me I smelled more like a rose than an actual rose did, and not in a good way, and I finally learned to calm it down. My point is, just because you go nose-blind to your perfume or cologne, or that you really like the scent of it, does not mean everyone else does.
Here is the rule of thumb that I swear by for maximum smell potential without overdoing it. Three sprays max. When you start doing more, it becomes overpowering and turns your “smell good” bad very quick. I personally spray my neck, wrist (then rub them both together) and behind my ears. Since those areas do not get worn over by clothing or touched as often, your scent tends to last longer. This means maximum scent potential without taking a shower in it. A win for your perfume or cologne, and a win for everyone in your office who thinks you wear too much!
Situation Three: the Office Culinary Catastrophe
It’s Monday morning, you’re running late, and didn’t have time to grab breakfast. Your stomach is growling like a bear emerging from hibernation and you’re watching the clock so you can head to the breakroom for lunch. It’s finally 12:00 and time for your flash freeze gourmet meal. You round the corner and wham! Jim from accounting decided to whip up a batch of leftover fish in the microwave. And he was thoughtful enough to bring in leftovers for everyone! As the stench is wafting through every nook and cranny in the building, Jim proceeds to tell you how his love for food is a talent and should be shared by all in the office. What’s next on his chef Jim’s menu? Burnt popcorn?
I think this is an easy one! A posted sign in the breakroom is a friendly reminder to what should and should not be prepared at work. “To maintain a workplace that is free from odors we ask that you do not prepare foods that have a strong odor.” Again, you will have rule-breakers and with a posted sign a quick adult discussion is reasonable. However, if the guilty party keeps bringing in his award-winning delicacies maybe it’s a time for HR or management to get involved.
Look, I think this situation is all too relatable. It’s hard when you have groups of people working together every day trying to make their own day as good and bearable as possible. But when that means they are bringing the things (and by things, I mean smells) they want to the office, regardless of if you like it or not, it can cause conflict and behind-the-back gossip that is not the most healthy for any workplace.
Go into work with a mindset of being considerate. If you know your leftover chicken curry may smell a bit for lunch, apologize and give fair warning to everyone in the lunchroom before and monitor the smell throughout lunch so it does not waft 30 yards down the hallway.
The Bottom Line
We spend on average 2,000 hours a year with our work-family. While there are many office challenges we all have to solve during the daily grind, putrid odor policing in the workplace should not be one of them. Raise your hand and be counted in the fight for workplace nasal abuse. Don’t suffer in silence!
As I said, go into work with a mindset of being considerate. If you think you may have put too much perfume on, go to the bathroom and clean the area off with a damp paper towel. Don’t diffuse your essential oil at work where everyone else can smell it too. While we all want to feel as though we have our own personal space to do what we want at work, we also all work around other people. I think a friendly work environment where you take others into account is much more enjoyable than a hostile one where people talk behind others backs because they don’t have any office etiquette.
Now, what do you do if someone is still clueless to their odor infractions? Be a polite adult to go talk to them about it. If Jimmy sprayed too much cologne, you can kindly ask if there is any way he could tone it down by wiping some off of where he sprayed it. If Cindy’s lemon essential oil is giving you a headache, just nicely tell her it’s a bit off-putting to you and see if she can stop diffusing. Most people seem to understand and shouldn’t take too much offense to it, given that you ask them about it without being rude or condescending.
I do not think unless it is a huge problem that many people are having issues with, that management or HR needs to be involved in smell situations. If you go to HR every time someone comes back smelling like BO after their lunch-break workout, then you can start to seem like a bit of a tattle-tail in my book. Management and HR are there to help with larger issues than someone’s smelly socks, and I bet they don’t want to get bogged down with those situations either.
Your takeaway on this: Be a considerate office mate, especially with the aromas you are bringing into your office. Do not take offense if someone says a smell you brought about bothers them; we aren’t all the same and don’t like the exact same things. Be an adult, and just have a conversation with someone if an aroma is bothering you or affecting your work. With some thoughtful actions and polite communication, we can all make our offices smell as pleasant as possible.