The Elephant in the Room: The Smelly Employee – Cigarettes

In my opinion, there is nothing worse than a colleague who comes into a meeting stinking of cigarettes!

I remember a time when people used to smoke in offices, it was completely normal. Just like smoking on an aeroplane – smokers on the left, non-smokers on the right‼! Something my kids cannot believe was ever a thing.

I also remember the introduction of ‘The Smoking Room’. The small office which was turned into a smoky hole in which those who partook were invited to go and inhale stale air and other people’s tobacco fumes – even the smokers hated The Smoking Room.

Today, those who want to smoke must do so outside, often in designated areas. The problem is, and has always been, what happens when they return to the office, with the stench of cigarettes on their clothes and their breath.

In reality, there is nothing an employer can do about it.

It is not illegal to smoke. It’s someone’s human right to smoke. Whether it is a problem is only dependent on who is around them on return to the office or on walking into a meeting.

Some people, like me, may be allergic to cigarette smoke. I can tell a mile off if someone has been smoking and it usually starts with me coughing uncontrollably until I figure out why (the same thing happens with some perfumes and hand creams, as my staff will tell you). Other people may just dislike the smell or find it ‘unprofessional’ in a business environment.

As the business owner / employer / line manager it is your role to balance the needs of the smoker, their colleagues and the business.

You have a duty of care towards all your staff and part of that is to create an environment where everyone feels physically and psychologically safe. Conflict in the workplace needs to be nipped in the bud at the earliest opportunity. Communication and discussion need to form the basis of dealing with concerns, and outcomes need to be agreed, communicated and enforced.

So, what to do with your smoker vs non-smoker?

One element which often causes conflict is the amount of breaks smokers take vs breaks that non-smokers take. In 2017, a Japanese marketing firm granted non-smokers an extra six days annual leave to make up for the time they didn’t take on cigarette breaks. As the company was based on the 29th floor of an office block a ‘quick break’ took at least 15 minutes.

Some businesses will get around this problem by granting everyone a one hour ‘lunch’ break each day and if smokers wish to smoke, they must do so during this time, which can be split into several shorter breaks. This ensures that each employee has the same amount of rest time on a daily basis.

And then there is the smell…..

Whether it is a traditional tobacco based cigarette or a scented e-cigarette, there is a smell which not everyone will find pleasant.

One client has put gum and body spray into the toilets and actively encourages people to ‘freshen up’ after a smoking break.

Ensuring workplaces are well ventilated is important for many reasons including removing bad odours such as tobacco and spicy food, as well as reducing the risk of infections including covid and ‘flu.

If people put on a coat or a jumper to smoke outside, removing the item and leaving it in an area away from the desks may be another way to reduce the transfer of cigarette smells coming back into the office where it may make some staff feel uncomfortable.

Whatever approach you decide to take, fairness, consistency and communication are going to be essential. If there is a problem, find a way to talk about it. Ask staff for their input in a constructive and open way. Ensure that the smokers understand the impact they are having on the non-smokers and that the non-smokers appreciate that smokers have a right to smoke.

To read our previous blog explaining why I’m writing a series on The Elephant in the Room, click on

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