Ah, spring is in the air? Too early for that. It’s just Sandy’s new perfume that smells as sweet as a spring meadow after a rainstorm.
But if another employee complains that the fragrance is aggravating her allergies, you had better act on it or the scent of a lawsuit will soon begin to fill the room.
Severe allergies may be considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), particularly since the definition of disability has been significantly expanded under the ADA Amendments Act. Employers have a legal duty to reasonably accommodate affected employees who request accommodation.
Case in point: The city of Detroit found this out the hard way when a city employee with multiple chemical sensitivity sued the city under the ADA for refusing to accommodate her disability.
A co-worker who wore heavy perfume and used a plug-in room deodorizer had transferred into the department in close proximity to the employee, causing the employee to become ill. The employee asked the co-worker to refrain from using these fragrances; the co-worker stopped using the room deodorizer but continued wearing the perfume. The employee complained to her supervisor, and although the possibility of relocating either the employee’s or the co-worker’s workstation was discussed, no steps were ever taken to remedy the situation. The employee took multiple sick days and leave under theAct ( ), and finally sued the city.
What you need to do
If an employee approaches you with an accommodation request due to their adverse reaction to strong fragrances, immediately start working with her to come up with reasonable solutions.
Consider adopting a fragrance policy like the one the city of Detroit eventually did, advising employees that mild scents may be worn in moderation, but strong or offensive scents that become detrimental to the work unit are not welcome. You could incorporate it into your existing dress code policy, or create a stand-alone fragrance policy.
When announcing the new policy to your workforce, explain the general reason behind the policy, but be sure to respect a disabled employee’s privacy and keep that person’s medical information confidential. If other employees complain that their rights are being infringed upon, explain to them that wearing a personal fragrance is not a need or a protected right, while accommodating an employee with a disability is both a legal necessity and the right thing to do.
If, after the policy is implemented, an employee comes into work scented too strongly, discreetly pull her aside, gently point out that her fragrance is too strong for the workplace, and ask her to refrain from scenting herself that way in the future. If she continues to ignore the fragrance restriction, treat it as an issue of insubordination and discipline. Apply the same treatment to men who overdo it with cologne.
In addition to or in lieu of a fragrance policy, here are some alternative accommodation ideas you could adopt:
- Get a small air purifier for the employee to keep in her workspace.
- Move the employee’s workstation to an area where she would have less exposure to fragrances.
- Designate certain areas of the workplace (e.g., meeting areas) as fragrance-free.
- Reduce the employee’s face-to-face contact with co-workers or clients by permitting her to conduct business via email, phone, instant messaging, etc.
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