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BusinessColumnistsCarrie Mason-Draffen

Employee smells a rat in office prohibition on fragrances

Companies are within their rights to ban fragrances,

Companies are within their rights to ban fragrances, but they should be considerate. Photo Credit: Getty Images / simonmasters

DEAR CARRIE: I have worked in the same multistory building for years. About 50 employees work in my area. Recently, a few colleagues announced that they are sensitive to certain fragrances and complained to management about their use in the office. The majority of employees, including myself, have not noticed any strong fragrances.

But prompted by the complaints, the supervisors, human resources and legal departments called a joint meeting with the staff and announced that, effective immediately, our area of the building will be fragrance-free.

So none of the staff is permitted to wear cologne, perfume, aftershave or scented versions of lotions, hair products, deodorant and talcum powder.

Is this legal, and if so, is the company obligated to purchase the fragrance-free items it insists we use?

— Smells Fishy

DEAR SMELLS FISHY: Even though the policy is broad, it’s probably legal, a workplace law expert said.

“Employers can make any work rule they want as long as it isn’t discriminatory,” said Lewis Maltby, president and founder of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

But he doesn’t agree with your employer’s approach.

“Banning fragrances from the workplace is a ham-handed approach to a legitimate problem,” Maltby said. “Employees who aren’t given the chance to moderate their use of fragrances will think the company is being unfair — [and] it is.”

Even aggrieved employees should start with a more common-sense approach by letting their offending colleagues know that their overuse of scents bothers them.

Then “their co-workers should be considerate and cut back on the amount they use,” he said.

If they don’t, then the company should act.

“If someone persists in wearing an amount of cologne or perfume that affects another employee, the boss needs to step in,” he said.

Still, he said, “This is a situation best handled on a case-by-case basis with common sense and courtesy.”

And that shouldn’t include a wholesale ban, he said.

“Banning fragrances completely is overkill,” he said. “It’s not a great hardship to give up aftershave or perfume. But it’s unfair to make people do so when it isn’t necessary.”

The prohibition could hurt morale in the long run, he said.

“No one is likely to quit over this, but even small amounts of unfair treatment decrease people’s dedication to the company, which diminishes job performance in subtle but real ways,” he said. “This employer needs to go back to the drawing board and find a more balanced approach.”

DEAR CARRIE: My friend works for a bakery and sometimes is required to be on duty 60 to 70 hours a week. Although he is an hourly employee, his employer does not pay him overtime when he works more than 40 hours. The employer does this to everyone. Is this legal? My friend is afraid to report him because many of the employees will get fired for turning him into the Labor Department. Is there a way for the Labor Department to question the employer without naming names?

— Friend Underpaid

DEAR FRIEND UNDERPAID: Based on what you have stated, the owner is violating labor laws. Hourly employees have to be paid overtime, or at least 1 1⁄2 times their regular hourly rate, for every hour over 40 in a work week. Managers don’t have to be paid for overtime, but hourly employees do.

Tell your friend to contact the U.S. Labor Department for more information at 516-338-1890. And he shouldn’t worry about the company finding out. The following from the U.S. Labor Department’s website should reassure him:

“All discussions with [the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division] are confidential. All complaints are confidential; the name of the complainant and the nature of the complaint are not disclosed. The only exceptions are: when it is necessary to reveal a complainant’s identity, with his or her permission, to pursue an allegation and when the [division is ordered to reveal information by a court.”

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