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Is Your Co-Worker's Perfume Too Strong?

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/17/2010

How do you deal with smelling a co-worker's strong perfume all day long? Three options include providing subtle hints, approaching HR, and direct confrontation.

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    Providing Subtle Hints

    How to Deal with Smelling a Co-workers Perfume The best approach on what to do if your co-worker's perfume is too strong is to provide a subtle hint that conveys the message without offense. Ways to do so include:

    • opening the windows to counter the strong smell by indicating to the co-worker “It smells in here" without actually making a reference to the perfume
    • sneezing or coughing frequently and making the claim of sensitivity to strong odors when the co-worker asks “What’s wrong?"
    • making a good-natured joke such as "Did you spill that, or are you actually spraying the whole bottle on purpose?" provided it is delivered without sting and on a suitable occasion.

    Subtle hints usually solve the issue, but sometimes the regular use of strong perfume might make the co-worker oblivious to the odor and fail to get the hint.

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    Human Resource Management Intervention

    If subtle hints do not work, the second best approach on how to deal with smelling a co-worker's perfume is involving the manager or human resource management (HR).

    The manager or someone from HR could either talk the perfumed employee into toning down the perfume, or provide some special arrangements.

    In Robinson v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (2007) case, the federal court in Illinois turned down the plaintiff's claim for compensation since the employer took reasonable steps to accommodate the plaintiff's alleged disability. Employers may thereby have to provide such special arrangements to accommodate people with strong allergies.

    Such special arrangements from the employer’s side include:

    • special seating arrangements
    • making a fragrance-free car available when commuting
    • memorandum encouraging employees to be considerate of individuals with sensitivity to fragrances and perfumes
    • issuance of a fragrance free work floor policy

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    Direct Approach

    A direct confrontation with the coworker with the strong perfume would almost certainly spoil the cordial working atmosphere, but remains the last option when all other efforts fail.

    Points to consider when taking such a direct approach include:

    • Talking in private. Many people will find the request of toning down the perfume offensive if they are humiliated in front of others.
    • Being direct but kind. The key is to convey the message clearly but avoiding judgmental or evaluative terms such as “Your perfume smells foul." Use excuses such as allergies if needed. A good line is "There are times when your perfume is too strong. It becomes a distraction. Might you be able to use a less strong fragrance?"
    • Make the impact milder by apologizing for possible offense and expressing hope of continuing to work together without the distraction.
    • Remain prepared to counter a possible defensive response.

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    Case Laws

    Strange as it may sound, the issue of smelling co-workers perfume has reached the courts.

    1. In Robinson v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (2007), a federal court in Illinois held that an employee with extremely high sensitivity to perfumes and other fragrances did not have a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff had complained of allergy to perfumes and other fragrances that caused her cold-like symptoms, headache, stuffiness, fatigue, sore throat, and shortness of breath. The court however found that the plaintiff's condition did not render her substantially limited in her performance of any major life activity.
    2. In Doris Sexton v. Cumberland Manor Nursing Home (2005), the employee claimed perfume sprayed by her co-worker left her permanently disabled and unable to work. A lower court in New Jersey ruled that the reaction to the perfume did not arise out of the employment, but an appeals court held the employer liable since the breathing air is a condition of employment, and contaminated air poses a risk of employment. The case is ongoing.

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    1. Hosper, Fred. Co-worker’s perfume made her sick: Is company liable? Retrieved from:
    2. New Jersey woman sues over perfume. Retrieved from