Thursday, May 15, 2008


Earlier this week there were some office relocations which placed two new people in an office two doors away from mine. Soon after the new residents settled in I started sneezing, my throat tightened up, my eyes dried out and my head aches kicked in, followed by mild waves of nausea. Needless to say this was not pleasant.

Spring time is not the most pleasant for allergy sufferers. Even in NYC where there is mostly concrete and metal, the air somehow grows thick with evil pollens that leaves many of the unlucky residents sneezing with red eyes and scratchy throats. While this has not been my worst allergy year, I have definitely felt the effects - especially when I took a walk through Central Park last Sunday.

But the other effect spring time allergies have on me is they leave me hyper sensitive to other allergens to which I would not normally have much of a reaction - such as perfume.

I did not grow up wearing perfumes or scented lotions of any kind because they were banned in my house due to my dad's severe allergic reaction to them. As a teenager I would keep my cucumber Victoria's Secret lotion in my locker at school and sometimes grumbled in disbelief that my dad was just trying to torture me and claimed he was allergic when he just didn't like the smell. But the older I get the more I become like my dad in so many ways - including inheriting some of his hyper-sensitive allergies.

Before the end of the day on Monday, despite having spent the bulk of the day on conference calls with my door shut, I realized one of my new neighbors was wearing too much perfume for my sinuses to handle. Each day since I have tried to just deal with it but upping my medications, removing my contacts and just ignoring it. But this morning it was just too much. I hadn't been in my office more than 30 minutes before I was hit with the scent of it and my eyes dried out and started threatening a head ache. My throat dried up and my voice started to fade. I decided I had to do something.

I wasn't sure how to approach the situation so I just dove in. The smell was overpowering enough to me that I thought someone had just sprayed it so I walked to their office and asked *nicely* if one of them had just sprayed perfume or cologne. They said no and I presented my case, thinking surely they could see my blood shot eyes, hear my scratchy voice for themselves. One occupant confessed to wearing perfume but tried to blame it on the flowers on her desk (which I couldn't smell at all) and the other said she had sprayed Windex . . . yeah, not the problem. We talked for a few more minutes wherein one woman suggested I get a humidifier for my office and I said that wouldn't change anything. I also mentioned that I am on a number of medications (both asthma and allergy) but the final word from the perfume wearer was that her husband gave it to her and "I'm sorry."

What? That's it? I'm telling you it is making me physically ill and your response is just sorry?

A co-worker tried to tell me to pull rank (I'm an attorney, this woman is "administrative") and insist she stop wearing it but I do not believe that is appropriate for a number of reasons not to mention that I would never insist I am more important than someone based on my role in the firm. This isn't about me being more important than someone else because I'm not. It is about me being miserable sitting at my desk trying to work.

So my question for the day is - what would you do? In either position - if you were the one getting sick or the one making someone else ill?


Jen said...

Do you have a mentor at your firm, or a trusted superior?

I'd go to someone like that and say they need to either move your office, move her office, or have her stop wearing the perfume because it's making you sick. You can say you talked to her about it personally, and that no agreement was reached.

Of course, the easiest thing would be for her to just ease up on the Chanel. But barring that, I'd say a move is in order. I don't know how attached you are to your office - but how attached can she be? She just got there.

Interesting dilemma. Good luck!

Kathy said...

You could check your employee manual. State and local government offices, as well as human services agencies in California forbid the use of scented products in deference to people with “environmental illness” (EI). If you don’t want to pull rank, go to HR and make them deal with it. To me, soap and lotion fragrance is tolerable and about as hard to escape as the smell of some one’s laundry detergent – but I think perfume is not a necessity and the wearers of it are self-absorbed, oblivious attention-seekers. If you can smell it from another room – if you so much as know the woman is in the building – it’s obnoxious and you shouldn’t be afraid to be a little obnoxious in defense of your health and work space.

katie said...

Ummmmm.....i could mail her one of my son's smelly diapers. I promise it would make her sick.

autumn said...

Gee, I am sorry. What an awkward situation. One would hope she'd just stop but, I really think there are rules about this sort of thing. I really feel for you. During pregnancy any sort of perfume smell makes me vomit. How awful.

Save the perfume for a night out with friends.

DeAnn said...

Do you think it's inappropriate for me to send anonymous copies of your post to several people I know? Seriously if you can smell it in another room -- it's too much! I'm allergic to perfumes too. If she doesn't tone it down ask her superior to talk to her or request she be moved.

Misty Fowler said...

I don't think rank has anything to do with it. If she won't stop out of simple human courtesy, then it's an HR issue. Your work environment is creating health problems for you. It's now up to HR to determine how they'd like to handle it - either moving your office, or telling her she can't wear perfume any more. It's too bad that she won't just stop, because I hate when HR makes arbitrary rules about work, like whether or not people can wear perfume.

critts said...

I'm so sorry! What a miserable situation. Apparently she missed the memo that you're not supposed to wear any kind of heavy scent in the workplace. I totally agree with others who have said it's an HR issue - it really is. Your performance is being weakened because of an environmental issue that would be very easy to change. I'd have HR deal with it. Good luck!

Mike said...

um, you're a lawyer right? Isn't this the same situation as smoking, other than there is no law against wearing perfume. It's still polluting an enclosed environment, so I guess it comes down to rights. Does her right to wear perfume because her husband gave it to her supercede your right to be allergy-free? I think its selfish and submissive in her case. She should say 'sorry' then it won't happen again, and when she's about to walk in the door to her house, spray some on for her hubby to smell.

Tamara said...

I wonder if she has allergies to could make it a game. Very mature, I know.

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