How do I deal with my employees who are smokers?
January 17, 2014 12:19 PM   Subscribe

I am allergic to cigarette smoke, but I manage employees who are heavy smokers. Being around them causes my eyes to water, I start sneezing, tears run down my face, and sometimes I have an asthma attack. What is the proper way to handle this?

This does not always happen, but after one of my employees has just come in from a smoke break, if I am within 6 feet of them for even one minute I start to exhibit fierce symptoms of an allergy attack. My eyes burn, tears stream down my face, etc, etc. I have tried just keeping a distance but they come into my office to review paperwork and stand very close to me, making things worse.

I don't want to be rude and ask them to keep a distance, but my physical reactions must be showing when they come in.

I am not sure the best way to diplomatically handle this situation.

To note, even if it's been an hour since their last cig I may still get some problems from prolonged exposure, sitting next to them for a meeting or such can cause me real issues including asthma attacks, but the more recent it is the quicker and more extreme my symptoms.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you tried asking them to wear a separate jacket when they go out for a smoke break? My last workplace had a smoker's closet for just this reason -- they put on a coat, go out for a smoke, and put the coat back in the closet when they come back inside. It cuts down a lot on the third-hand smoke smell, at least.
posted by Etrigan at 12:28 PM on January 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

#1, tell them you're allergic. Right now they don't know anything is going on - other than you seem to react oddly to their presence. I'd do it 1:1 but not in an accusatory manner, something like "You may have noticed that sometimes my eyes water around the office. I have asthma, and am particularly sensitive to smoke. So, if you see my eyes watering, it is nothing personal, I'm simply allergic." You might also tell them where you keep your inhaler, if you have significant enough allergies that you can foresee an instance in which you need assistance getting your inhaler/help.

#2, Get a couple of heavy duty air filters for your office. It will help, I promise - and is a physical reminder to your employees of your sensitivity.

I would start with these two things and see how that works before moving towards anything more direct, but if you're still having serious symptoms after letting your employees know about your sensitivity and getting a HEPA filter, I would move towards asking them to simply make a point of avoiding your office for the first 20 minutes after they go outside for a smoke break.
posted by arnicae at 12:29 PM on January 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Good advice so far. Another thing you could do, if you're willing, is take Claritin (or Benadryl, if it doesn't make you drowsy) on work days. An antihistamine might cut down your reaction and make your life more pleasant.
posted by Scientist at 12:40 PM on January 17, 2014

I don't want to be rude and ask them to keep a distance

That's not rude, that's accommodating your allergies. You don't choose to have a reaction to cigarette smoke. They choose to smoke. You're also the manager. It's well-within reason and politeness to ask them not to negatively affect your work.

I am not sure the best way to diplomatically handle this situation.

This is not something to be diplomatic about. This is affecting your health. In particular, it's even protected by law. Your employer should not even hesitate to help you here - smoke-free workplaces are beneficial to them regardless of your health issues (due to reducing costs associated with smoking, even if only in the form of reduced health insurance premiums). Go to HR/corporate higher-ups and state this as a medical issue rather than a politeness issue. Tell them this needs to be fixed, and let them fix it. A workplace that does not aggravate your allergies is not something you should have to spend time achieving - that's a basic need that your employer should already be providing.

If any of this is taken with even a bit of resistance by your employer, you should start looking for a new employer ASAP.
posted by saeculorum at 1:04 PM on January 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

A smoke free workplace will help, but might not solve your problem completely, because they'll still be free to smoke in their car during their breaks.

That said, it is HR's job to solve this problem for you, so bring it up to them as a medical issue. You should never have to suffer an asthma attack as part of doing your job, and you're the manager!
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:15 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to be clear, this isn't actual smoke that is triggering your response, but the residual smell?
posted by rhizome at 2:36 PM on January 17, 2014

Almost every time I go out and smoke at work, I come back in the building and WASH MY HANDS. This reduces, at least, the smoke smell and whatnots I'm bringing in. (I wish I had a dedicated smoking jacket at work, instead of walking in and out in a smoky jacket though!)

It is not at all unreasonable to ask people to be mindful about things like washing their hands after smoking, perhaps using mouthwash, etc. Smokers have no sense of how much they smell—until they do. Then they're mortified.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:43 PM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

A small warning about pre-emtively taking a daily dose of something like Claratin or Benadryl: all of that stuff will have product warning labels not to take it more than (usually) ten consecutive days, because it'll raise your blood pressure, among other things.
posted by easily confused at 4:06 PM on January 17, 2014

all of that stuff will have product warning labels not to take it more than (usually) ten consecutive days

I just looked at my bottle of generic Benadryl (a small amount of which I take nearly every day). And no, there is no warning to that effect. On the other hand, if you have trouble urinating due to an enlarged prostate gland...

Anyway, Benadryl may make you way too sleepy to work. But you shouldn't have to take antihistamines just to exist around your co-workers. If you have a true allergy/asthmatic reaction to cigarette smoke residue, it's not rude to have them keep their distance, wash their hands, etc. One of my co-workers has a Lysol fetish, and she was asked to cut it out (by our boss), because it aggravated my asthma, and that of another co-worker. There's nothing rude about asking for this kind of accommodation.
posted by Coatlicue at 4:53 PM on January 17, 2014

MSDS for benadryl. 2 year liver toxicity by taking a tab/kg bodyweight daily in rats.
posted by bfranklin at 5:00 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

In some states it is legal for employers to discriminate against smokers in terms of not hiring them and giving quit or leave ultimatums to existing employees who smoke.
posted by Dansaman at 5:12 PM on January 17, 2014

Well, there’s choice and choice - smokers are addicts, I think that’s been established. Most want to quit (because it’s toxic and disgusting and we’re ashamed of it). Also, cigarettes are still legal (unfortunately, it’d be easier to quit if they weren’t).

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them not to smoke, but if they don’t know they’re affecting you this way, I agree it’d be good to follow the advice offered by arnica and Etriga and RJ Reynolds. I don’t know a single smoker who’s motivated by the intention to hurt or annoy other people with their habit -- almost all will make concessions, and expect to. So I wouldn’t worry about approaching them with any of the requests described above, individually or en masse.

You could, I guess, fire them all, depending. A meet-in-the-kind-of-middle alternative down the line might be to talk to HR about offering smoking cessation support for those employees prepared to engage with something like that. Win-win-win.

I was curious and found this (on, wait for it, Dr Oz’s ShareCare Q&A, so take it for whatever that’s worth). People claiming to be professionals there are under the impression cigarette smoke is an irritant, rather than a true allergen. Not that (if this is so) this would diminish the negative experiences you’re having (whether allergy or sensitivity), but (if true) it’s unclear whether anti-histamines would help, around irritation in response to the smoke itself, or to whatever particles remain on a smoker’s clothing or hair after smoking. Perhaps someone can clarify?
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:03 PM on January 17, 2014

(although of course smoke can aggravate allergies! and cause cancer and the rest.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:09 PM on January 17, 2014

In addition to the advantages of your direct reports being aware of a frequent and debilitating allergic reaction to a relatively common stimulus, which will help them keep an eye on you for something going seriously wrong, I'd be very surprised if the simple information that this severe allergy is possible and present doesn't convince someone to just give up the things. I know if someone I saw every day told me that being in my presence after I'd had a cigarette provoked a really terrible health problem, I'd have quit that day, cause it's one thing to kill myself slowly, but it's another thing to hurt someone else visibly and immediately. Tell them what's up. You plus compassion could actually save their life.
posted by Errant at 8:07 PM on January 17, 2014

I would approach HR for help, develop a plan with them, then have a meeting with an HR rep and ALL your employees to talk about the new policies and procedures in the office regarding smoking. If you want it to happen and to have people take it seriously, you need to present it as something that management takes seriously. Go ahead and talk to them about how it affects you so they'll understand why you've been crying and wheezing, but emphasize that you aren't the only person who will benefit. I doubt you're the only person who's been affected by this.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:08 PM on January 17, 2014

« Older Red Raspberry leaf tea for a shorter labor -- did...   |   Will my DUIs keep me from working in recovery? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.