When odorous becomes onerous: Workplace odor and litigation
- Whether it's food in the lunchroom, body odor, bad breath or the latest designer fragrance, odor in the work place is a legitimate HR issue, according to an article at Bloomberg BNA.
- In fact, say legal and HR experts, odors may "significantly disrupt a workplace" and are to be taken seriously, as it can result in costly litigation.
- A SHRM spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA that odor issues are of “high interest” to HR practitioners, and in the past year SHRM has had "more than 7,700 requests to our Knowledge Center for resources on fragrance-free workplace policies."
Due to the odor issue, “... things can get serious really quick” and disrupt productivity, Maria L.H. Lewis, an attorney with Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia, told Bloomberg BNA. Ignoring a workplace odor issue, or even downplaying it as something less than serious, could morph into potential liability under employment discrimination laws, Lewis said.
For example, a decade ago a federal jury in Michigan awarded $10.6 million to a female disc jockey who claimed under the Americans with Disabilities Act that her radio station employer disregared her complaints about a co-worker's perfume (she had an allergy). While the award was later reduced (and a settlement reached), the point is made.
Options for employers offered by legal experts include accommodations to the complaining employee, such as moving them away from the offending odor source, and other efforts. An employer can also institute a "fragrance-free" workplace policy and policies covering other sources of workplace odors, depending on the specific circumstances. In any case, workplace odors are a legitmate HR issue and something that leaders may need to factor into workplace strategies and policies.