can we ban smelly foods in the office microwave?

A reader writes:

We have an employee at work who has been bringing in some pungent food and heating it up in the microwave oven. I have received a complaint or two of the smell, and a number of vendors who’ve come to our office have commented on the smell as well. One employee shared that the smell makes her sick, even nauseous at times. This employee with the stinky food sits close by to the front door, so any visitors (which mainly consist of our firm’s clients) would be sure to get a good sniff as well. She always heats up this food and takes it back to her cubicle to eat it there. Even if I asked her to limit the eating to the designated eating area, the smell would still travel, as our office space is not that big and the lunchroom where she heats it up is central.

Is this something that can be safely and appropriately brought up to the employee, about her bringing in smelly food? Do I have legitimate grounds as her supervisor to bring up this issue? We are a professional firm and should maintain a professional environment, but even beyond that, her food is irritating other workers and potentially affecting their productivity and concentration.

Would it be fair to enforce some kind of policy or make a general office etiquette announcement that suggests people eliminate heating up any foods with strong odors? Along with explaining that we need to maintain a professional working environment, especially keeping our clients in mind and that these kinds of odors do not help maintain one, but rather can be overwhelming and disturbing to others, both to visitors and those within…?

There are others who also heat up some smelly food time to time in the office with the microwave, so it isn’t entirely just this one employee. It’s just that she does it more regularly than others.

Also, I should note, this particular employee (with the smelly food) can tend to be quite sensitive and moody from time to time. When she is annoyed, she can be very harsh to others and in general, does not have a very positive working relationship with the other staff.

Sure, you can absolutely have a policy against heating up strong-smelling food in the office microwave, and plenty of offices do.

You want to make sure, of course, that your policy isn’t unfairly targeting people of a particular ethnicity or national origin, who might bring in foods that smell different than what the rest of your employees are used to. So your policy needs to tackle strong smells across the board, both in wording and in how you enforce it. But yes, it’s entirely reasonable to have a policy that says something like, “For the comfort of employees and visitors, foods that produce strong smells should not be microwaved or consumed in the office.”

Of course, even after the implementing that policy, you might still discover that people don’t always realize that their food smells strongly to others, and if that happens, then you’d need to tell them. As in: “Jane, would you mind not heating up fish and similar foods in the office microwave? The smell carries pretty strongly.”

If, in response to that, the employee asserts her right to cook whatever she wants, you can explain that no, in fact the office doesn’t allow foods that produce strong smells to be cooked there, end of story.

Also … if you’re not already tackling her tendency to be rude to others, you’ve got to take that on too — it’s more important than the microwave issue. You need to let her know that you expect her to be pleasant and polite to her coworkers, even if she’s annoyed, and you need to hold her to that standard, just like you would with any other part of her job.

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