Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

When Your Coworker Wears Too Much Perfume

Dear Joseph,

How should I respectfully approach a co-worker about her pungent perfume? I can tell she’s been down the hall even after she’s been gone for five or ten minutes. The scent lingers and is foul to me; after encountering it I begin to feel nauseous. She’s a very popular and pleasant person. Except for the smell of her perfume, which is always the same, I love being around her. Even as I was writing this she just came into my office with a request. Ugh. I hate to sound immature, but I am sensitive to odors. I hope no one feels the same way about my perfume What can I do?

Signed, Perfume Paradox

Dear Perfume Paradox,

The most important advice I can offer is to stop worrying and start talking. The longer you obsess about how scary the conversation with be, the more you raise the emotional stakes. One of the most subtle influences on how safe the other person feels in a crucial conversation is how safe you feel. If you come in terrified because you’ve pre-lived every disastrous outcome in your head, they will pick up on your stress and feel anxious in response.

Calm yourself. Lower the stakes. Come in relaxed. Here’s how.

Instead of thinking of disaster scenarios, think about how much you admire her. You describe her as a “very popular and pleasant person.” You say, “I love being around her.” Focus on that. Get clear in your head that what you really want from this conversation is not less perfume but more friendship. If that’s where you’re coming from when you approach her, she’ll feel that. And she’ll feel safer.

Approach the conversation like this:

Lead With Purpose

If people are okay with your intent they will be okay with your content. Proudly and unapologetically share your intentions while sharing the problem you are trying to solve. Start by explaining that you’ve noticed yourself avoiding contact with her because you react physically to her perfume.

Take Ownership of Your Own Problem

Don’t make it about how much perfume she wears, make it about your reaction to the perfume. Once again, declare why you are bringing this up. You might say, “I realize I have been a coward because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. But then I notice I’m trying to be around you less, so I don’t get this reaction. I like that solution even less than taking this risk.”

Offer Solutions that Impose on You not on Her

Don’t ask her to stop wearing the perfume or reduce her volume. Let her make that offer if she chooses to. There’s a good chance she’s going to feel defensive for a little while. You can help her get over it faster by reassuring her this is your thing and that you aren’t asking her to change anything. Simply explain, “It works better for me if we meet in the cubicle area and not in my tiny office. It also works better if I sit a little farther from you. That’s my plan.”

End with Purpose

Reassure her one last time of your intent. “I just wanted to have this conversation so that you’ll understand what might look like quirky behavior. I don’t want you to think I’m avoiding you. I want you to know that the opposite is the truth. I didn’t want to risk my relationship with you by leaving my behavior unexplained.”

Let Her Do Her

No matter how well you handle this, she might still feel a little shell-shocked. Give her time to get through it in her own way. Don’t nurse your own paranoia by looking for signs of resentment. Let her be distant, tentative, hurt, or whatever she needs to feel to get to the other side of the adjustment. Prove your sincerity by having more contact with her in the near-term rather than less.

If you handle this well, it could help you create a closer relationship with her than you have ever had. Crucial conversations, if held well, are trust accelerants. They help us learn to be more honest and develop more authentic connections with those around us.


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8 thoughts on “When Your Coworker Wears Too Much Perfume”

  1. Jeff Grigg

    Some people do have perfume “allergies” or sensitives. I know of several cases where “reduced perfume usage” was needed as a “reasonable accommodation” for some.

    So the “particular sensitives” (and harm) to a few might be a useful “angle” with which to approach the issue.

    1. Matthew Hank Sabins

      I am going to be honest, this is stupid advice. People who purposefully wear too much perfume are literally making people sick. People who wear too much perfume are lowering productivity, and making a hostile environment.

  2. V

    On the perfume issue: As someone who is very allergic to perfume, I recommend that the person having the reaction stop wearing perfume herself. She’s already wondering if others are having the same negative reaction to her own perfume. Otherwise, the recipient could feel like she is making a judgement on the quality of the offending perfume. Small price to pay to avoid this easily predicted reaction.

  3. Kristina

    Joseph, I don’t think you are treating this issue seriously enough. Many chemicals used in perfumes are seriously toxic, and include those that are carcinogenic (yes, some perfumes can cause cancer), interfere with hormones, cause harm to reproductive systems, kidneys, nervous system, and respiratory system. Classing this as a personal “sensitivity” can be minimizing a serious issue. The suggestion to first spend more time in a hazardous situation is certainly not helpful. Because many toxins impact the nervous system, I would not suggest speaking to the person directly since one may be triggered by the toxin. I would instead suggest talking to HR and presenting some of the copious evidence of fragrance toxicity, and having HR make a request that goes out to the entire company, noting that cologne and other fragranced products can also be culprits. One might also be able to ask HR for accommodations such as an office air purifier. An approach I’ve heard used is to present the allergy as a disability – and make the request in the way someone with a peanut allergy would.

  4. Hanne Wulp

    I especially like the self control skills presented in the answer after the person has had the crucial conversations: just be yourself, liking the perfume person and wanting a good relationship with her. Because it is awkward, one might not be aware of their own reaction afterwards. Instead of needing the perfume lady to still like her/him and needing the expression of that, they can just go on with expressing their own ‘like’.

    I’ve experienced working with a person whose body odor was not fresh and everyone was worried it would come across as unprofessional towards clients. A crucial conversation would have been good; instead his secretary bought deodorant and put it right on his computer keyboard. It turned out to be effective, he started using it and things got (slightly) better.

  5. Michael Bauerschmidt MD

    I practice Environmental and Functional Medicine. Many of my patients have the same nausea as a consequence of being around phthalates (Volatile Organic Compounds that cause an exposed person to experience nausea, headache or a simple fight or flight reaction). It is truly a medical issue that signals a total body burden of accumulated toxicants that renders the individual quite incapable of adding even a “whiff” more. I have a “No Fragrance” policy for my office to avoid this issue that applies to patients and staff alike. There are many more than you might imagine of people that suffer from this without beingable to name it. The Crucial Conversation may need to add the health aspect to it.

  6. When Your Coworker Wears Too Much Perfume - BYLD Group

    […] This blog is an adaptation of a blog written by Joseph Grenny on January 13th, 2021 –  […]

  7. Eugene

    The person is not a coward. They have a physical reaction to a perfume that is causing them nausea. Thats something that can clinically happen to someone.

    Being over scented is a workplace problem and is unprofessional. We have a fragrance policy at the place I work at – a top 100 hospital. In our handbook it states:

    “Exposure to scents and fragrances in the workplace can harm coworkers and patients…”

    Please don’t give advice when you are ignorant about a subject.

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