Do I Have to Smell My Co-Worker?

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Scent Matters

I work in a small office at a start-up. Some of my colleagues used to be in extremely senior positions at major companies. I’m in my late 20s and have done well enough in my career, but I’m still very junior to some of these hotshots.

One, who sits close to my desk, wears a suffocating amount of perfume. I’m autistic, and I’m sure that compounds the problem as I’m quite sensitive to strong smells, but I’ve never had this problem before (normal amounts of perfume don’t set me off). I find it hard to focus on work, and it raises my heart rate when I feel like I can’t escape this physical sensation of strong perfume.

I’m not very good at navigating sensitive situations, but I would really like to say something. Do I approach my (normally very understanding) boss about it, or would that be interpreted as me going behind perfume-colleague’s back?

— Anonymous

Spending time around people who wear too much perfume or cologne can be absolutely unbearable. I’m sorry you’ve been dealing with this. You’re not necessarily going behind your colleague’s back to bring this up to your boss. It is your boss’s job, in part, to help the team resolve conflicts. But if you think this colleague is approachable, first try to have a conversation with them.

Being junior does not negate your right to a safe workplace. It doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. It can be a delicate matter to tell someone there’s an issue with their appearance or hygiene, but how this affects you is also a delicate matter. Try the tactful approach. Take your colleague aside and share that the quantity of their perfume is triggering chemical sensitivities beyond your control.

If you find taking that approach untenable, you should absolutely speak to your boss. Regardless, there is nothing unreasonable about your request.

Nepo Spouses

I work at a small community mental health center, and we recently started having an overnight clinician-only retreat. The first one was really popular, and we have since hired a new clinical director.

Our second retreat is approaching, and the clinical director’s wife will be attending. I don’t know her well and she does not work in the behavioral health field, but I have nothing against her. I expressed to the event organizer and clinical manager that I feel uncomfortable with nonstaff people attending our retreat, as it means we cannot openly discuss clients due to HIPAA — and it also changes the vibe to have one person’s spouse in attendance. The event organizer simply thanked me for the feedback but said the spouse was leading an activity and would stay for dinner and then leave.

Am I missing something here? Please let me know if I’m in the wrong for thinking this way.

— Anonymous

The spouse in question is attending the retreat for a stated professional reason. She will be leading an activity, and then she will leave after dinner. It doesn’t seem that she will be attending any events where clients are being discussed. She happens to be someone’s spouse, but she is attending, as you note, in a professional capacity. Perhaps you should think of her in that professional capacity, instead of considering her only through her marital status.

Nepo Babies

I am a senior project manager at a midsize nonprofit. The company is quite tolerant of family members working in different departments. We run a paid internship program that frequently employs children of existing employees for a summer in college — in fact, my daughter was in this program during her sophomore year in college several years ago.

My supervisor asked me to take on my team the daughter of a colleague with whom I work closely and socialize with. The daughter had just started in a full-time position. I said I was uncomfortable having this person on my team because of the nepotism. This caused my supervisor to become visibly upset. I did not have a chance to understand from him why my concern was an issue and have been puzzling about it ever since.

Is it expected that managers should be able to work with a son/daughter of a colleague? Any perspectives on this, or if you want to discuss nepotism in general, I’d appreciate your perspective!

— Anonymous

In your letter … you said that your own daughter benefited from nepotism and that the children of your colleagues were welcome at the company. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why you would have a problem working with the child of another colleague when your colleagues have worked with your own child and when this is a common organizational practice. Your reaction is truly out of pocket. What, really, are you puzzling about?

I refuse to get riled up about nepotism. Meritocracy is a myth, and the more transparent we are about how and why people get jobs or otherwise achieve success, the better off we will all be. The problem with nepotism is how often it goes unacknowledged. People with the right connections achieve success and act like they did it without any help, as if they just worked hard enough and were excellent enough. That makes the rest of us try to work harder and be better in the hopes that if we, too, work hard enough, we will achieve our goals. When we don’t, we assume we are the problem. It’s a vicious cycle.

When we eventually learn that successful people had a unique advantage enabling them to make the most of hard work and some measure of talent (or not), it is infuriating because we are reminded of how unfair life can be. At the same time, there are times when people place way too much stock in nepotism, as if it were the only barrier between them and that which they want. But back to your concern — I’d ask yourself why you’re so concerned about company-sanctioned nepotism when a beneficiary of it has to work on your team, but otherwise you’re fine with it.

Another Case of Bait and Switch

I got a new job in September at a tech company that aggressively marketed themselves to candidates as “a remote-first, globally distributed company.” I was only interested in positions that were permanently, 100 percent remote, and I would not have considered the role otherwise.

Things had been going great, until they sent a companywide email last week announcing that all employees — even the hundreds that were hired to be fully remote — will now be required to go into the office three days a week. My offer letter clearly says my position would be remote, and this is nonnegotiable for deeply personal reasons. This feels like a bait and switch.

If they won’t let me continue to work remotely, can I ask them to give me severance? If I were laid off, I would at least be eligible for unemployment benefits — but I won’t be if I’m forced to quit.

— Anonymous

Permanence is relative, I’m afraid. You are definitely the victim of a bait and switch, and this is unfortunately happening to a lot of people who were promised remote work but are now being forced to return to the office.

I’m afraid you aren’t in a good position to request severance, because you don’t want to continue working for this company now that the terms of employment have changed. Legally, your employer has the right to change those terms. If you don’t have a contract (an offer letter is not a legally binding contract) explicitly stating the job will be remote only, your options are quite limited. It’s definitely time to start looking for new work.

Theoretically, you can ask for severance, but that sort of thing generally works when you have seniority and have been with an organization for a significant amount of time. If you want to try, you want to make a strong case for severance, outlining what you’ve brought to the organization over the past five months and why it’s in their best interest to agree to your request.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at [email protected].

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