Dear David: “Sniffing” for Chemical-Free

I suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities. I worked as a project manager for an architectural firm for 16 years. This employer greatly valued my work and did a great deal to enable me to work in this office. If someone came into the office with heavy perfume, I could leave immediately, etc. I specialized in nontoxic building components. Due to lack of building in the area, I was laid off in October. How do I let potential employers know of my condition — on my resume? In an interview? Am I obligated to let them know early in the application process? Should I visit the potential workplace on my own and “sniff” it out?

— Nosey, OR


I’ve worked in some environments that had clear policies to address chemical sensitivity and some that did not. There have definitely been times when I wished there was one — especially when someone had evidently taken a shower with eau de parfum. Not a fan of heavy cologne either? Here’s an entertaining (scent-free) parody of one famous cologne ad.

Whether you choose to reveal your chemical sensitivity before you are hired is a judgment call: being up-front may help build good will if you do get the job, but there’s also a risk that a potential employer could consider it a strike against you. Although it’s illegal for an employer not to consider you for a job because of your need for a reasonable accommodation, it can be very difficult to prove that that was the reason you didn’t get a job.

Your legal rights in terms of applying for jobs and requesting accommodations are determined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Here are some resources about the ADA; how it applies to allergies; and how it applies when applying for jobs. As you can see from the last link, you don’t have an obligation to discuss your need for a reasonable accommodation while applying for a job.

If you are hired somewhere without an existing chemical sensitivity policy, keep in mind that this might be an issue that you could attract others to get behind. Get to know the lay of the land, and once you know your coworkers better, take a temperature reading on the matter. Find out what they think. It’s best if you build toward a consensus that works for you and your coworkers. Then, approach your boss as a group. Highlight the ways that a chemical sensitivity policy would be in everyone’s best interest, and ask for it to become policy. Good luck!