Our submission contest for a free training last month brought all sorts of tough scenarios. We chose this unique one from all our submissions in January 2019. Thanks again to all who submitted their scenarios.
SCENARIO: "We have a satellite office that houses several people with respiratory issues. We're not sure what to do about this but we've had a couple of incidents already in this office. The concern for our employees comfort is important, but how important and at what cost? We have many other employees that are not affected. Do we really have to react to one or two employee complaints?
We got an incident report about one employee in particular having an asthma attack from a fragrance somebody was wearing. We heard that this individual has complained before about odors and fragrances of fellow employees and even of customers. The individual had even gone home sick from one of these incidents. Is this real? Should we put up with this dilemma or fire this employee, sending a message to others?"
ANSWER: Our heart goes out to this employer for this difficult situation. The fact of the matter is that there are laws in place to protect people with legitimate respiratory issues in a case like this. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) says that we, as employers, have to provide a reasonable accommodation for anyone with a legitimate physical or health related disability.
In comparison, other employers have adopted Fragrance Policies in response to this type of disability. There are samples out there on the internet and if you are a SHRM member they have an approved template, as well.
The other problem with ignoring this complaint is the engagement of your staff. The one person who complained is not your only concern. If they feel they are being ignored morale will take a nose dive and productivity will fall with it, so it will definitely affect your bottom line to some degree in the short term and to a much larger degree if ignoring employee complaints continues.
You should take other steps with the policy adoption such as posting signage (fragrance free zone), for both employees and customers. Don't stop there. Be sure, like with any change management, you have addressed the reasoning and informed employees so they become a part of the solution and the culture change long before you start enforcing it, and get their feedback, or you will have a rebellion on your hands.
There are several articles on this topic at SHRM.org if you are a SHRM member. One other question, not mentioned in the above scenario, but one you might be asking yourself, is should we require a doctors note. You should allow a note from any kind of medical professional and it will verify the condition in case there is any question of its validity, but it is not required. If the person(s) with the condition is really struggling with the scent, fragrance or fumes to the point where they can't work in the office a little bit of trust, from a boss or co-workers, that they are being truthful can go a long way. Unless they are requesting unreasonable accommodation it might just be best to find a way to find an accommodation, for morale's sake.
If you would like to submit a scenario you are struggling with, to possibly win a free training, send your scenario to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Scenario" in the subject line before February 28th, 2019.