A boss’s scents-less bru­tal­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - CLASSIFIED - KARLA L. MILLER


My depart­ment has a fra­grance free pol­icy. Re­cently, in front of ev­ery­one, my boss came over, sniffed me and said there had been com­plaints that I was wear­ing patchouli.

Here’s the thing: I was not wear­ing per­fume or scented lo­tion. I def­i­nitely was not wear­ing and had not come into con­tact with any patchouli prod­ucts. I have been us­ing the same hair and face prod­ucts for months or years, and my laun­dry habits have not changed. No one in my house­hold smokes or wears fra­grance.

The day be­fore, I had no­ticed some co work­ers whis­per­ing about a smell, and a few of them kept look­ing at me. I over­heard one per­son men­tion smelling burned toast and another vanilla, so it seems there wasn’t re­ally a con­sen­sus. Af­ter my boss sniffed me, one of the whis­per­ers kept pub­licly in­sist­ing that I smelled. I later checked with two other co­work­ers who said they smelled noth­ing; one said she smelled some­thing faint, like sham­poo, only when she was close enough to touch me.

I think this might be about some highly sen­si­tive noses (it’s al­ways the same two peo­ple who have is­sues) and a boss who is try­ing to make sure no scents ex­ist at work. Oth­ers who have been treated in this man­ner (which al­most felt like ha­rass­ment to me) ended up cry­ing in the bath­room and even­tu­ally trans­ferred. I have no de­sire to do ei­ther. How much more do I have to do to com­ply with this pol­icy?


Maybe this is just a well in­ten­tioned pol­icy gone awry — or maybe it’s a case of bul­lies ex­ploit­ing a ze­ro­tol­er­ance pol­icy to tar­get peo­ple they don’t like. The snitchand­sniff rou­tine def­i­nitely sounds like ha­rass­ment, es­pe­cially if it’s driv­ing work­ers out in tears. In any case, your boss’s re­sponse to com­plaints from the Blood­hound Gang is hamhanded, bor­der­ing on hos­tile. If you have an HR team, no­tify them that you have ex­pe­ri­enced and doc­u­mented an on­go­ing pat­tern in which work­ers are be­ing sub­jected to gos­sip and in­va­sive public in­spec­tions. If noth­ing else, your overzeal­ous boss should be in­structed to re­fer fu­ture al­leged vi­o­la­tors to HR for ob­jec­tive con­fir­ma­tion and dis­creet coun­sel­ing. HR may even de­cide that your depart­ment’s fra­grance­free fiat needs an arm’slength stan­dard. Next time you or another scent­free in­no­cent stands ac­cused, crank up the vol­ume against the whis­per cam­paign: “Hmm, that’s odd — I haven’t worn any scented prod­ucts at work for years,” or, “I don’t smell any­thing like that — does any­one else?” If enough work­ers start push­ing back— or even com­i­cally cir­cling and sniff­ing each other like dogs at a park— the boss may de­cide that ap­peas­ing two peo­ple with their noses out of joint is not worth the stink it raises.. Karla Miller dis­penses ad­vice on work­place dra­mas and trau­mas for the Washington Post Mag­a­zine’s @Work Ad­vice col­umn. She tack­les ques­tions on ob­nox­ious of­fice mates, bul­ly­ing bosses, and get­ting by in the cur­rent job mar­ket. You can read her col­umns at wash­ing­ton­post.com/workad­vice and fol­low her on Twit­ter: @Kar­laAtWork.

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