The holidays (yes, all of them) are upon us, and with them a host of associated phenomena: “Santa Baby,” “Christmas Shoes,” and “That Hula-Hoop Song (feat. Alvin & The Chipmunks)” are playing on repeat. The Department of Public Works elves are hanging illuminated snowflakes, candy canes, and Christmas trees from the lampposts along Main Street. And at this very moment, small children are scampering up your front steps, hoping beyond hope that your wrapping paper and boxed candy needs have yet to be fulfilled.
As the season hits your workplace, you may notice something else increasing: smells. They come in many forms, some easy to identify, others harder to pin down, but all disturbing in their own way. As a public service, we’ve researched this noxious topic and cataloged three common smell infractions, as well as methods for dealing with them in a safe and effective (and mostly humorous) manner.
If you came in search of a serious article about workplace odors, rest assured: we’re aware they can be a serious issue. Fragrance allergies are real, and so are the effects of strong odors on employees. Failing to address them can have real consequences, since fragrance and chemical sensitivities qualify as a disability under the ADA. So, if you want real solutions, skip to the final paragraph, where we’ll offer some genuine suggestions for tackling office smell issues.
If you came for laughs, however, allow us to present:
Workplace Smell Violations (and How to Deal with Them)
Food is doubtless a main attraction of the holiday season. Beginning with the candy overload of Halloween and peaking at Thanksgiving, excess of food seems to go hand-in-hand with sweater weather and pumpkin spice lattes (which, for reference, are also food). But too much of a boon can also be a bane…
Food Problem 1: Potlucks
Office potlucks are swell. Where else can you sample eight different versions of Grandma’s sweet potato casserole, all in one location? Yet, when the potluck is over, the aromas remain, locked in the only conference room large enough to host both a luncheon for the entire Creative team and, coincidentally, your 1:30 client presentation.
Our first suggestion is to install a high-velocity exhaust fan system, but if your infrastructure budget makes that impossible, simply opening the doors and requesting that no simmering Crock Pots of creamed onions be left in the room should go a long way to addressing the issue.
Food Problem 2: Leftovers
Whether arriving from the aforementioned potlucks or the home kitchens of employees, leftovers are a year-round lunch staple, providing delicious and nutritious (and cost-effective) meals for hungry workers. Unfortunately, the increase in edibles around the holidays can have a ripple effect resulting in overstuffed refrigerators, the contents of which could prove an effective launching point for cutting-edge bacterial research.
Solution: Ruthless efficiency
That sign posted on the office refrigerator saying, “Contents will be thrown away every Friday at 5 P.M.”? Enforce it. You can’t be accused of impulsivity or malicious intent if you make your intentions known well in advance. And for anyone who objects, inform them that you saw mold growing on their turkey and gravy, but you’ll be happy to dig it out of the garbage and watch them eat it.
Food Problem 3: Trash
With potlucks, family dinners, and leftovers come more leftovers—the kind that we toss in the garbage. If yours has become a miasma of tossed turkey, shelved stuffing, half-eaten ham, and putrefying potatoes, you’re not alone. Luckily, the solution is simple.
A no-brainer, really: whether it’s a cleaning crew or a designated staffer who empties the trash at the end of the day, leaving refuse overnight is simply a non-option. Get rid of your garbage on the regular, and you’ll get rid of the smell. Also, keeping larger receptacles out of the main workspace and adding a lid prevents big piles of daily trash from wafting their scent into your workplace.
Nobody wants to bear the bad tidings when odors move from the impersonal to the person themselves. However, just as avoiding confrontation doesn’t solve these issues, denying their existence doesn’t make them go away. Here are two common causes of awkward odor issues and some suggestions for resolution.
People Problem 1: Meat Sweats
Turkey. Ham. Pot roast. Even Christmas goose (if you’re Bob Cratchit). If you work in an entirely vegetarian office, these may not be a problem. But the meat sweats (a.k.a. “the meats,” according to our colleagues) are a real thing, and the winter season brings them on like no other.
Solution: Save Energy
Why offices turn into saunas in the coldest months of the year will always be a mystery. The heating costs alone must be astronomical, not to mention the impact on your nostrils when the London Broil that Gary had for dinner last night is reaching osmotic imbalance. Turn down the thermostat, and the benefits will be twofold: money saved on your monthly heating bill, and senses preserved from assault by “the meats.”
People Problem 2: Gym B.O.
At least during January, you’ll probably experience a massive uptick in New Year’s resolutions . . . and that means a ton of people heading to the gym before work or during lunch. Until everyone loses momentum and eventually regresses to their sedentary lifestyles (which, for the record, is killing all of us), that means sweaty people, sweaty workout clothing, and yes, even gym shoes. The funk of forty thousand years.
Solution: Nip stink in the bud
Before things get out of hand (better yet, before there’s any issue at all), consider sending a company-wide memo reminding employees to be conscious and considerate of how their hygiene affects others. Politely asking gym-goers to consider showering post-workout and to keep sweaty gym clothing out of smelling distance might seem a little . . . particular. But it’s better than having one-on-one meetings with offenders who might take it very personally.
You’d think odors created intentionally would be simple to prevent (just…don’t create them), but there’s always the issue of conflicting personalities when it comes to Yuletide scents. Some love them, some don’t, and the ones who do may end up winning the day. Here’s how to mitigate the damage:
Artificial Odor Issue 1. Potpourri/Scent Machines
Woe unto the evil laboratory gnome who designed the first artificial Christmas potpourri bouquet, and a hundredfold on the mad scientist who invented the scent machine. Yet, inevitably, with the first flakes of falling snow (or the first festive note emanating from your office ceiling, if you live further south), out come the decorative bowls of cinnamon-covered pinecones and the scent machines that sit in the corner, whirring away like some sort of electronic rodent deterrent. Fear not, for your nostrils may yet be saved.
It’s a big word for keeping things away from each other, but compartmentalization is the answer when artificial scents invade your workspace. If at all possible, use physical and other barriers to restrict odors to areas like the lobby or individual offices. Close doors, reprogram HVAC zones, or buy tiny desk fans if necessary. And if that fails, underhanded tactics like “accidental” unpluggings and pinecone disappearances have worked in the past. But we don’t recommend starting a smell war.
Artificial Odor Issue 2. Perfumes/Lotions
There’s no accounting for personal tastes, but when your cubicle neighbor’s tastes run towards slathering on the Bath & Body Works Holiday Collection or dousing themselves in Hunky Musk (by Faberge), it’s you who suffers the consequences. We’ll admit, “overwhelming-peppermint-pine-cinnamon” is almost bearable when compared to “overwhelming-berry-vanilla-everything-else” but that doesn’t make it pleasant.
Solution: Be nice . . . then run away
If you never talk to your coworkers, now’s as good a time as any to start. Try asking the offender nicely if they wouldn’t mind switching to a non-scented lotion or skipping the cologne in the morning—not because you hate it, but because you’re sensitive to fragrance—is the easiest approach and will likely do the trick. If that fails, we suggest telecommuting, applying for transfer, or crafting some sort of airtight barometric chamber around your workstation. However, we feel obligated to tell you there’s a significant risk involved with any pressurized containment system. If you’re serious, it’ll take an engineering degree, thousands of dollars in raw aluminum, a number of gaskets and gauges, some scuba tanks, and permission to use the office welding equipment.
ON A SERIOUS (SCENT) NOTE
As we mentioned in the intro, workplace odors can be a serious issue with serious consequences. Some of the suggestions above (like exhaust venting, compartmentalization, and increased airflow) are actually great solutions if the situation is bad enough—chemical odors, for example—but chances are, OSHA will require proper ventilation in most applicable cases.
Food odor issues can generally be solved with regular trash removal and break-room refrigerator purges. And because office smells are often just like house smells, do what we do: Google it. We solved a strange smell in our break room after reading online advice to pour water down the floor drain.
But not all smells are so clear-cut. For more nuanced issues (like those involving gym-related body odors and strong perfumes), an interoffice memo or even a scent-free workplace policy may be the best solution. For even more personal problems like a serious body odor issue, addressing the situation one-on-one may be necessary. It’s critical that situations like this are handled in a sensitive manner, which is why HR is best equipped to deal with them.
Workplace smells are unpleasant, but if you don’t address them, the consequences can be much worse than you might think. Dealt with promptly, appropriately, and with a positive attitude, even the worst smells are easier to manage than unhappy employees or a potential lawsuit.