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Etiquette column: Co-worker's cologne is fouling the shared air

Friday, November 23, 2012 - 7:56 am

Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at

Q. Karen, my co-worker who sits very close to me wears overpowering cologne that makes me slightly ill after breathing it for a few hours. Do I ask him directly to stop wearing it, or ask our supervisor to speak to him?

A. Any fragrance, such as cologne, perfume and aftershave should be used sparingly in any situation, but especially at work. People should have to get fairly close to you before smelling your special potion or signature scent. You would never want your fragrance to precede you into a room or hang in the air like old cooking smells after you have gone. Your scent should attract people, not irritate them.

Many people are hypersensitive to perfume or even allergic to it. It can cause migraines, nausea and a general unwell feeling for some who are exposed to it for long periods of time. If you work with someone and have to share a fairly small space and their scent is causing you discomfort, it may be time to tell the offending person. Telling a person politely that his or her fragrance is causing you to feel sick may be all that is needed. However, if the individual doesn't respect your request to lighten up, you may need to take the issue to your supervisor or HR person so he or she can intervene. Today, the continued exposure to an unwelcome scent can be equated to having to endure secondhand cigarette smoke in the workplace, and some companies are being taken to task on the issue.

So here are some guidelines to keep in mind before you splash on your favorite scent:

•Consider the two-foot rule — people should not be able to smell your fragrance until they get fairly close to you.

•Choose lighter scents during the day and in summer months. Leave the heavier and exotic scents for nighttime and winter.

•Avoid wearing perfume in hospital settings (this applies to visitors, too) and on planes.

•Use lightly scented body lotions instead of perfume when you know you will be in close quarters with others.

•Don't mix your fragrances.

•Don't reapply a fragrance in public, and be mindful that the person wearing the perfume stops smelling it long before others do. Ask someone if he or she can still smell your fragrance before putting on more.

•If more than one person tells you your perfume is strong, believe them.

Less is more!

Karen Hickman is a certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy LLC. Do you have a question for her? Email, and we'll forward it to her.