I recently developed a sensitivity to fragrances. I get headaches, suffer from vertigo and generally feel awful. My boss allowed me to post signs that say “Fragrance-Free Zone,” but some people persist in wearing fragrances. Once, a perfume-wearing coworker came to my cube and I felt a migraine coming on. I explained my problem and asked her to step back. She was offended and told my boss my behavior was completely inappropriate. I’m non-exempt and can’t work from home: Part of my job is to take notes in meetings, and the biggest fragrance offenders are in these meetings. What can I do?
You have a whole bunch of problems going on here.
1. Some people don’t believe in allergies or sensitivities.
Some of these non-believers see it as their mission in life to prove they’re right. Hence, you get people hiding nuts in tuna casserole and putting perfume on in your presence, just to prove your allergy or sensitivity isn’t real.
2. Some people lie about having allergies or sensitivities.
I knew a young man who declared he was allergic to fruit — all fruit. That seemed like a very strange allergy. I have one sibling and a niece that hate fruit with a burning passion — so much they won’t drink juice or even eat fruit-flavored candy. I said to this young man, “I have relatives with fruit aversion. Are you really allergic or do you just not like it?” He confessed he just didn’t like it, but it was easier to say he was allergic than to have people insist the only reason he didn’t like fruit was because he hadn’t tried their apple pie.
3. People don’t understand what “fragrance” means.
They think it means perfume, which most people don’t wear. But washing detergent, body wash and even deodorant all can have fragrances. You’re undoubtedly just as sensitive to the fragrance from Secret deodorant as you are to Chanel No. 5. So, people think they are fragrance-free when they are not, and you look crazy because they aren’t wearing any perfume.
4. Some people just stink.
OK, so that’s the background. Here’s what you do about it.
Absolutely, positively, fill out the paperwork for an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation. You may think that disability means you need a special parking place, or you have heart problems, but fragrance sensitivities can be subject to ADA; it depends on the severity, but it sounds like yours would qualify (educated guess here). ADA requires that you ask for accommodations. Your employer doesn’t have to offer if you don’t ask.
ADA accommodations are “interactive,” which means you and your employer go back and forth about what would work. It sounds like your direct boss is supporting you, so that’s good. It’s the other people who are not.
What type of accommodations do you need? Do you need a general fragrance ban, or can you handle passing someone in the hallway wearing a strongly scented fabric softener? For some employees, the best solution is to work from home. But it sounds like in your case that’s not practical. Talk with your boss about what would and would not work for you.
Sometimes, simple things can be the best solution. For example, consider the note-taking: Since the biggest offenders are in those meetings, you can use your phone to record the meeting while you step out, or even Skype it to your cube around the corner. My guess is that after doing this a couple times, your biggest offenders will change their fragrance habits.
Nice people will, of course, be happy to give up their perfume when they hear of your problems. Unfortunately, depending on your level of sensitivity, you might have to ask people to change everything in their whole household — from deodorant to laundry detergent to hand soap. That’s a lot to ask, especially since most people don’t even think about how fragrances can impact others.
Make sure you keep your HR and manager in the loop. Talk more about yourself than other people. For example, don’t say, “Susan’s perfume gives me a migraine!” Instead, say, “I get migraines from the perfume that Susan wears.” There’s a subtle difference — in the first scenario, Susan is at fault and in the second scenario, you are. You don’t want anyone to feel attacked.
Good luck with the fragrance challenge. It can be really difficult for you and the workplace, but I’m confident it can come to a good resolution.