HR Strange But True

Smell Harassment: Yes, That’s a Real Thing and There Is Training for It

What is smell harassment? There is no formal definition of this term, at least where Merriam-Webster is concerned. However, it can be defined as a person—or group of people—who is offended by the way another person smells, particularly via a person’s body odor or bad breath. This touchy subject can also open Pandora’s Box for discrimination-related claims, so how can HR handle this stinky situation?

The Mainichi is reporting that several firms in Japan have recently come up with a solution to handling smell harassment in the workplace. These companies are now offering training courses to help the offending parties better manage their personal hygiene in an effort to stop upsetting others in their presence. Remember—this is in Japan, so U.S. workplace laws generally don’t apply.

One company offering such training is cosmetics maker Mandom Corp. The company hosted a seminar in August for the mobile phone company, SoftBank. During the seminar, a presenter passed around a sample bottle of body odor and asked attendees to take a whiff. The presenter then informed attendees that the stench comes from “the odor of oily skin and the smell that comes with aging.” By using the samples of smells, Mandom’s intentions were for attendees to learn the causes of body odor and how to properly use deodorant.

“Body odor is a very sensitive subject, and it’s not easy to tell employees to their face that they smell. But if we pass on the content of this seminar at our workplaces, problems with body odor may improve,” said one attendee of the seminar.

A Mandom spokesperson suggests that companies are interested in odor control for their employees because “a marked increase in the workforce of women, who are sensitive to the smells of men, and the spread of energy-saving awareness leading to higher air conditioner temperature settings may have led to a demand for finding ways to stop perspiration.”

Another company jumping on the smell train is Owndays Co., an eyeglass manufacturer. The Mainichi reports that the company found an odor-free workplace to be important after a customer lodged a complaint against one of its employees who smelled like cigarettes. The company found that since it works with customers on a face-to-face basis (literally adjusting glasses on its customers’ faces), not being smelly takes on additional importance.

Owndays Co. now requires employees to brush their teeth after lunch or a break, avoid eating strong-smelling foods before and during work, and to avoid wearing perfume. However, the company does allow its employees to wear antiperspirant deodorant. “Smells can worsen the impression of our stores,” a company spokesperson said. “There are many positive sides to the measures, too, such as an increase in employees who, concerned about cigarette breath, are trying to quit smoking.”

Tsuneaki Gomi, head of Gomi Clinic in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, offers this advice: “Worrying excessively about the smell of one’s body can lead to self-rejection. People can become so afraid of their body odor that they avoid others and lose their self-confidence.” Gomi adds, “However, that body odor can increase due to exhaustion or lifestyle habits and can function as a barometer of one’s health.”

So should the U.S. be jumping on board with this sort of training? BLR® Senior Legal Editor Joan Farrell offers this advice: “Because body odor may be caused by medication, a disability, or a special diet, employers in the U.S. should forgo group training and address body odor issues directly with the employee to avoid violating fair employment laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.”