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Office no-no(se): From BO to bad breath, here’s how to handle it

We’re not saying we’ve all experienced this but we’re hazarding a fairly solid guess that you’ve had to endure (at least once) the not-so-sweet scent of an office colleague or their lunch. What might seem like a small (smelly) issue can, however, have a longer-lasting effect than just momentarily offending your olfactories.

Personal hygiene and body odour can present health, safety and workplace risks

According to Canadian Employment Law Today, poor personal hygiene can pose risks in professions such as food processing and handling as well as healthcare, where the risk to patient health and contamination are high. Smells can also undercut workplace harmony and productivity according to Bloomberg Law. And that's not just the bad smells – perfume and fragrance sensitivity is one of the top workplace complaints. Clearly, not everyone j’àdores Dior. In one extreme case, an employee took her employer to court and won after they failed to accommodate her allergy to a colleague’s perfume. Look alive HR, look alive.

But, certain smells can have a positive impact on your cognitive state

If we ignore the garlicky breath and cloying perfumes, studies suggest that aromas can improve your cognitive state. For example, the smell of peppermint has been linked to improved memory and dual-task performance. Lavender has been found to lessen fatigue and enhance interpersonal trust. So now the question is, how can you give bad smells the heave-ho without martyring the malodourous? There’s one main way to approach it…

Hello HR, goodbye bad smells

One way of ridding your office space of bad smells is, quite simply, through policy. Sometimes it’s as cut and dried as having – in writing – that you can’t bring certain generally bad-smelling things into a shared office space. For example, you may want to add surströmming to a list of no-go bring-to-work foods. Don’t know what that is? We’ll enlighten you: as a fermented Swedish fish, it’s frequently been voted the most putrid-smelling food in the world. If you feel like laughing, please YouTube this Nordic delicacy being opened by unsuspecting diners.

In other instances, getting rid of bad smells requires a bit more sensitivity. If the ‘something fishy’ is a particular employee, you need to discuss your next steps with HR according to Bloomberg Law; HR personnel would be aware of potential legal and discrimination pitfalls. Then it’s a private face to face with the employee in question and addressing their smell as gently (but directly) as possible. As silly as it sounds, an important outcome is to walk away with a reasonable expectation for body odour and an understanding that this needs to be flexible enough to accommodate their role. If they’re outside in the baking sun for most of the day you can see the need for some leeway.

Going forward, you can also make appropriate personal hygiene a condition of employment (as long as you’re within the bounds of general labour law and the Employment Equity Act). You can read about a South African case where an allegation of bad body odour and hygiene went wrong for the employer here.

At the end of the day, controlling office odours is a win-some, lose-some battle – with a bit of air freshener in between. Just remember, when you're taking steps to combat smells, get it all in writing.

At Office & Co. smells needn’t be of concern. Our fully serviced offices in Cape Town and Joburg have fresh air flowing around the clock and you can even control the scent of your office space with one of our flying-solo boardrooms. Explore our versatile, good-looking (nice-smelling) office space today.


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