Is Body Odor a Disability under the Law?
Body odor or strong scents in the workplace can cause a number of problems for employers and employees. While some may just be distracted by severe body odor, others may have serious allergies to scents. The results are the same, though. Work morale decreases along with productivity and positive employee interaction.
Workplace body odor situations stem from many different problems. Sometimes it has to do with poorly washed clothing or not changing clothes after a lunch workout. An employee may not be aware of the odor or may have a medical issue that causes the offending smell.
All in all, it often falls to management to deal with the problem. Studies show that most people prefer to be informed about emitting an odor, but that doesn’t alter the awkwardness of broaching the conversation. But when the odor is tied to a medical problem or an employee has an allergy to strong fragrances, that employee may have certain rights under the law.
Examples of Strong Odors in the Workplace
Mason struggles with his health and has taken FMLA leave to deal with it. But when he’s at work, a bad odor wafts from him. He doesn’t seem to be aware of it, but his coworkers do their best to avoid interacting with him.
Cindy’s migraines attack in response to floral scents, and a coworker in her office wears a strong floral perfume every day. The perfume sends Cindy into migraines that often have her going home for the day. She cannot continue to work in this environment due to her sensitivity to scents.
Ryan jogs to work every morning. Although he changes into professional clothing for the rest of the day, his body odor is still strong. His coworkers aren’t sure how to let him know that he smells bad.
Top Odor Problems in the Workplace
Strong smells in the workplace can disrupt work and concentration. Ongoing problems with odors effect productivity and working relationships. The top offending odors must be handled.
A number of people suffer from allergies related to perfumes and body sprays. A fragrance-free workplace can protect employees from migraines and headaches.
Food heated in the microwave has a way of releasing their smells throughout the entire office. Nothing can make a nose wrinkle more than tuna or fish sauce. Although most noses will eventually stop registering the scent, it can create an uncomfortable experience for workers.
Personal Hygiene Odors
Cleanliness is next to godliness or just a great idea when you work with others. Someone who doesn’t change out of their sweaty workout clothes or doesn’t seem to shower regularly can bring a stench to work that no one wants to sit next to.
Although none of these are necessarily illegal, each of them can cause workplace problems and jump start other issues. An employee with poor hygiene might begin to feel harassed by coworkers who avoid them. Another employee with a fragrance sensitivity who requests a fragrance-free workplace may require a reasonable accommodation for their severe allergy-related migraines. Employers need to handle workplace odors promptly.
Is Body Odor a Disability under the Law?
Sometimes body odor can be a symptom of a disability. And employment law provides clear protections for workers with disabilities. Therefore, if you are an employee with a body odor problem stemming from a health condition, you may have protections under the law.
The key to claiming that your body odor is protected under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is if it qualifies as a disability under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Your employer also must have 15+ employees to meet the requirements by this law or you must work for a federal agency. The ADA obligates employers to not discriminate against employees with disabilities and to provide reasonable accommodations.
The ADA on Body Odor and Disability
No employment law specifically addresses body odor as a disability, but some courts have ruled that certain situations of body odor or perceived disability do, in fact, count as a disability under the ADA. The definition of disability according to the ADA is a wide one. Basically, an ADA disability majorly limits a life function or the person with the disability has a history of the disability or is perceived to have a disability.
With the definition of disability including perceived disability as grounds for ADA protections, an employee with a disability doesn’t actually need a mental or physical impairment. However, the perceived disability should be expected to last more than 6 months. And the perceived disability should be a major one—not a personal hygiene problem.
When it comes to body odor, the impairment doesn’t so much influence your ability to work as it might disrupt others and make you uncomfortable due to how they respond to you and your odor. But to prove that your odor warrants ADA protections, you must document incidents with your coworkers and how their reaction is influencing you and your work. The appearance of anxiety or depression after experiencing your coworker’s responses to you could eventually prove your disability.
Do I Need a Doctor’s Note to Prove my Disability?
Honestly, it depends on your company. Some will require some medical documentation while others will discuss reasonable accommodation with you immediately. It’s appropriate for you to ask about reasonable accommodations during the interview or once employed. Employers are obligated by the ADA to respond to your inquiries regardless of whether or not you have a doctor’s note. But you may want to already have a doctor ready to vouch for your odor disability.
What Can I Do About Workplace Harassment Due to my Body Odor?
Workplace harassment of a legally protected class is illegal. If your body odor stems from a disability or is perceived as a disability from other coworkers, then it is illegal for you to deal with workplace harassment. But, it can be difficult to prove that the harassment is motivated by your body odor. When you recognize bullying behavior from coworkers, speak up and tell them that you do not appreciate their words and actions. You must show that the harassment is unwelcome.
To hold up under the law, the harassment must be ongoing and severe enough to interfere with work. This type of harassment can be verbal or physical.
Steps to Take for Hostile Work Environment
Navigate the company policy
Before you can pursue your rights under federal or state law, you must take the necessary steps within the company. Read your company handbook to see what process to follow for trying to resolve the situation. This often means reporting incidents when other employees, supervisors, or clients harass you. Some cases are lost simply because an employee didn’t follow company procedure first.
File a complaint with the right agency
When your employer and supervisor fail to take necessary steps to respond to your internal complaint, you can file a complaint with the right federal, state, or local agency. At this step, it’s wise to consult an employment lawyer. A lawyer guides you in the process for filing a complaint and submitting it to the correct agency.
Points to Prove
- Your disability falls under ADA’s definition
- Unwelcome harassment dogged your workplace interactions
- The harassment negatively influenced your work and the work environment
- Either management knew or should have known about the ongoing harassment and did nothing
Note: occasional comments and minor incidents do not constitute as harassment.
Receive the Right to Sue letter
Before a lawsuit can be filed against your employer, you must receive a Right to Sue letter. Naturally, it’s critical that you’ve tried every avenue to pursue your rights outside of federal court. Since hostile work environment due to body odor has rarely been handled in the courts, you must work harder to show that you’ve done everything you can to pursue your employee rights.
If you have a disability that results in bad breath or body odor and you have experienced workplace harassment, you may have a case under the law. Investigate your legal rights by speaking with an employment lawyer about your situation.