Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How Much Fragrance is Too Much at Work?

With a nod to Dear Abby

Did you know that fragrance in the workplace can be a contentious issue? Fragrance, intended to entice, unite, and delight us, can often divide us instead.

Some people have fragrance allergies, and others have fragrance aversions. I fall into that fragrance aversion set. There are certain fragrances that make me gag. My eyes water, I cough – it’s not pretty. There is something about the scent of cinnamon that makes me run for cover. When I have to pass the Cinnabon sites in malls, I hold my breath and walk as quickly as possible to get out of “smell range.”

Does anyone remember when Red was the “perfume of the year”? Red could clear an elevator. Seriously! I had to jump out of one once and wait for another. A woman wearing Red had overdosed on what I found to be a pungent, disgusting perfume, and it was hard to breathe in a confined space next to her. I was one happy camper when Red faded into oblivion.

At the most extreme, there are people with multiple chemical sensitivities who suffer serious reactions when exposed to certain scents. I know someone who worked in a “sick building” and became distressingly sick every time she set foot in her workplace. Worse than that, though, she had to move out of her house into a custom-built home with all offending chemicals banished. I learned that she is not alone in her angst over chemicals.

Where I work, the issue of fragrances has come up fairly often. How do you deal with the individual who wears a lot of fragrance and you can’t get away? Today’s cubicle environments have exacerbated this problem. What if amber disgusts you, and your cube neighbor loves her new Ambre Sultan perfume? What if your neighbor just wears too much fragrance? Two squirts would have been fine, but you’re sure he bathed in it?

Here’s what we tell people.

Explain to your co-worker that the fragrance is a “bit strong” and ask politely if he or she would wear “just a little less.” Sometimes, people are happy to oblige to contribute to peace in the workplace! If that doesn’t work, and the issue is truly serious for you, go to the individual’s manager, explain the issue (calmly and logically), and ask for help. A good manager will try to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. If that doesn’t work, then it’s best to talk to your own manager, inquire about workplace policies, and ask what you should expect in terms of your own work environment. Many companies address fragrance in the same way they address other “dress code” rules and regulations. Too much fragrance might be treated the same way as eye-popping cleavage. If you are a valued employee, your company should work to make you as comfortable as possible.

This issue just came up again where I work. We are looking for ways to “sensitize” our employees to the issue. Meanwhile, I hope to continue to get compliments on my fragrances – not complaints. If I do bother someone, though, I would want them to tell me – nicely. "Hey blogger girl, that rose is overwhelming - makes me sneeze!”

Are there fragrances - or specific perfumes - that send you running for cover?

Photo courtesy of


Unknown said...

interesting article. i think perfume etiquette or tolerance depends on culture and geographic location. i live in Midwest and hardly ever smell fragrance on anybody. And when they do it is mostly something clean and inoffensive (like Light Blue or Romance) or Body Shop/Victoria Secret creation. As a result, I often get comments, mostly nice, when I wear my fragrances. I think that people in larger cities may be more used to variety of perfumes and do not care much one way or the other. Also, in some countries wearing perfume is a part of daily ritual, like taking a daily shower in US. I have to admit I feel a little naked when I forget to put some perfume on in the morning :)

Charlestongirl said...

Thanks, Anna. I feel naked without my fragrance too! It's part of me.

I find your insight on cities, culture, and geography interesting. Do people from the Midwest really just not use perfume, or do you think they have a lighter hand?

I tend to not notice in the workplace (and that's good) unless the individual has "bathed" in it. Then, I can sympathize with those who complain.

Unknown said...

i really don't think people use that much perfume here. i used to work at a perfume counter when i started college and younger people mostly bought very light and fresh scents. if i offered anything stronger or more flowery it was usually frowned upon. so i learned to only offer Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Escada and like scents when i saw someone my age. More mature ladies usually bought only a couple of fragrances, like Angel or Safari. Funny thing, I never smelled Angel on anybody in real life. And I have a really good sense of smell :)

Charlestongirl said...

Oh Anna, I used to be the "Escada Queen," before they went Hollywood on me. I spend a retirement on the clothing, and I'm still wearing it. And I so miss Andrea, my Escada sales person in Boston who made sure I never missed an intro or sale. BUT, I could never stand their fragrances. Bad mixtures and strong for me!

Anyhow, they left their mainstream customers - professional and "society" women who had the money to buy Escada clothing - and aimed for a younger, celebrity audience. They lost their base. I've always wondered why they made such a strategic mistake. They have tried to climb back, but Armani ate their lunch while they were "out to lunch."