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The Smell of My Coworker’s Lunch is Making Me Sick. What Can I Do?

Eliot Kaplan  |  August 5, 2019

Communal office spaces and pungent foods don’t always mix, and depending on your colleague’s preferences, you may find their lunch choices downright nauseating.

HerMoney’s JobScripts tells you in detailed, measured fashion exactly what to say in every office situation and how to respond no matter how the conversation turns. It takes you all the way through the interaction, leaving you feeling confident that YOU are the one steering the conversation. And confidence is at least half the battle. This week, we’re tackling the tricky topic of what to do when your colleague’s pungent lunches are distracting to your workday.

Q: Every day, my colleague (who sits in an adjacent cube) brings in strong smelling foods like curry chicken, leftover fish and steamed broccoli — all of which can be real microwave stink bombs. The food smells up the whole floor, and when my coworker comes back to eat at their desk near me, I pretty much always have to get up and leave. It’s important to me to maintain a positive relationship with my colleague and keep peace at the office, but at this point their lunches are impacting my productivity, and quite frankly, making me sick. How do I deal with this? Is it safer to go to HR directly in order to avoid confrontation?


A: Oooh, pungent. First be sure there’s no cultural bias going on, with your making judgments on others’ native cuisine. I love a good cheesesteak with onions, but I’m sure it’s an olfactory offense to anyone without Philadelphia roots. I don’t think you need HR just yet (and for others reading with the same problem, HR often doesn’t exist in smaller companies). Try to handle this interpersonally.

You say: “Your lunch smells delicious. But I’m very sensitive to aromas of all sorts. It’s so extreme that I can’t even wear any perfume or anything. It’s a real pain, I know. I’m so sorry to ask you this, but would you mind going over to a different area when you’re eating lunch? I would move myself, but I have an important call/we’re having a team meeting here right now.” 

The response you’re hoping for: “I guess that is a little fragrant. Sure, no problem. I’ll try to heat up my leftovers in a covered container so everyone doesn’t have to enjoy my lunch along with me.”

You say: “Thanks so much. I really do appreciate it. There will be times when I can go elsewhere, but just not today.” 

Case closed. Your colleague is as empathetic as they are fragrant … If they do a good job keeping the smells down, you may even want to treat them to lunch one day soon. 

The response you’re dreading: “What makes you so special? I don’t say anything about the foods you eat, and your kale smoothies often make me nauseous. We have an open office, and I can eat anything and sit anywhere I want.”

You say: “Let’s not make this personal. That’s not what this is about. But the aroma of this food is very strong and it’s not fair to everyone else in this tight space. It makes all of our lunches taste like yours.”

Things have now escalated, alas. You could have other offended colleagues weigh in  separately but that is just going to make him or her feel ganged up on. HR doesn’t particularly like having to deal with stuff like this, but they may be your next recourse.

The response you never saw coming: “Yeah, it does smell good, doesn’t it? Here, you want a taste?”

You say: “Uh, no thanks. I’m good. But you see my friend Betsy at the end of the hall? Why don’t you go walk down there and offer her some. I know she loves tofu and brussels sprouts marinated overnight in Sriracha.”

About Eliot:

Eliot Kaplan spent 18 years interviewing over 5,000 people as Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Hearst Magazines. He now does career coaching at coacheliotkaplan.com. He knows there’s a WorkScript for every office dilemma, so send your problems to jobscripts@hermoney.com for Eliot’s expertise.

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