In the Trenches: Allergic crusader campaigns until fired

An Acme employee with a severe allergy to perfumes and other artificial fragrances repeatedley campaigns his cause to HR, until he's finally fired. Find out the full story and remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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Through luck and persistence, Chris Mazguze was landed a clerical position at Acme’s corporate headquarters. It was about time he found a job that was a cut above flipping burgers and stocking shelves.

One week after he was hired, Chris informed Flo Snurrey, his supervisor, about his allergic reaction to perfumes and the artificial fragrances in many common household products. The symptoms he experienced when his allergy acted up included clogged sinuses, watery eyes, a sore throat and, occasionally, migraine-like headaches. The symptoms might be temporary or they might last two or three days. Chris explained that a particularly severe exposure left him lethargic, groggy and unable to concentrate on the work at hand. He asked that Flo arrange for Acme to accommodate his condition by prohibiting other employees from wearing perfume.

Flo, a lady’s lady herself, replied that Acme would be unable to do anything of the sort because an employer has no right dictating the hygiene habits of its employees. Besides, the idea that she herself would no longer wear perfume was unthinkable.

Secretly, she harbored second thoughts about her new employee.

So, on his own, Chris told anyone with whom he came into perceptible olfactory contact that he had this extreme allergy and described his potentially severe reaction to the scent the person is wearing. Several coworkers were sympathetic; some cut back on their morning splash of scent, others completely stopped. But most Acme employees couldn’t care less and continued with their routine a.m. ablutions.

Chris also regularly visited the HR department to lobby for a company-wide ban on wearing perfume and cologne while on the premises. He likened his reaction to the one that justifies the ban on second-hand smoke in the workplace. All that Chris managed to get from Acme was a change to a different type of air freshener in the men’s rooms.

Even though Chris’s symptoms arose often during the next two years, he didn’t miss many days of work. He just grouchily trudged onward, toughing it out as best he could, feeling as miserable as he looked. However, coworkers noticed that he seemed to be spending an extraordinary amount of time on his anti-aroma crusade. This fact wasn’t lost on Flo, who mentioned it at the last three performance reviews she gave Chris.

It was during an office upgrade and rearrangement that Flo thought she finally had a golden opportunity to respond to Chris’s original request for accommodation. She specified that Chris’ workspace be surrounded by empty workstations and file cabinets to help minimize the potential for continuing allergy attacks.

With the new seating arrangements, his symptoms eased a bit, continuing along, but at a lower intensity. Chris continued to lobby the HR department. That effort resulted in several additional accommodations. Acme told Chris that he could wear a mask while in the office. HR also had private discussions with employees who walked through the office leaving a cloud of aroma in their wake. HR even went as far as sending a company-wide e-mail asking employees to be circumspect in the amount of odor they bring into the workplace.

Now, three full years into his tenure at Acme, Chris is still struggling with his allergy and still trying to extract comprehensive accommodations from the company. Topping his list was getting the company to ban scents inside the building. By this time, however, Acme’s HR department was weary of having to rehash the same material with the same employee each month. Finally, Acme asked Chris to submit a medical certification form, to be completed by his physician. The company wanted the benefit of a third-party opinion.

A week later, Chris submitted the form, on which the doctor reported that his patient was extremely sensitive to perfume and other fragrances, but this condition didn’t constitute a serious health condition. Also, the doctor wrote that Chris was theoretically able to perform any work that Acme needed him to perform.

During the following year, Chris continued to file his monthly complaints about scents and perfumes. Each time he did, Acme asked for an updated medical certification form. Chris never submitted any.

Last October, Flo sent Chris a memo telling him that his performance isn’t up to the standards that Acme expects. She also put him on probation pending a performance review scheduled two weeks hence. The memo cited the behavior and unresolved performance issues that were of concern. It mentioned his failure to meet the provisions of the action plans to resolve these problems that were highlighted during previous performance reviews.

It was at this performance review that Chris finally submitted a follow-up medical certification form. In this one, the doctor told Acme that Chris has a serious health condition, which is a direct result of the allergy and that he is not to work when the symptoms are present. Acme felt justified in terminating Chris and thought the matter closed.

But, Chris sued, claiming that Acme had discriminated against him by refusing to accommodate his disability.

How could this situation have been prevented? Can a company dictate such hygiene matters? How would the situation have differed if a non-allergic Chris never bathed? Does an allergy really require workplace accommodation? Is there any practical way to do it? Should pre-employment physicals be mandatory? If Acme wasn’t willing to accommodate Chris, then shouldn’t they have terminated him within the first 90 days of his employment after they learned about the allergies?

An academician says:

Probably my favorite smell story is an office guy who went on the Internet to buy a special cologne that was absolutely guaranteed to attract women. However, the women in his office found it putrid and nauseous, and said it made them sick. Romeo was told to get rid of the stink or find himself another job. So, to answer one of the issues here, if someone’s cologne, perfume or body odor makes coworkers ill, then either the person or the smell goes. However, even this could get complicated if the odor is caused by an offender’s health-related problem.

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