In reviewing your response to a question on Nov 17, 2020 from an adjunct library science professor, your advice is to create a "smell free zone" in the library for those patrons bothered by another person's odor. Your reply, however, does not address staff who are complaining as well about a patron's body odor. Often, the staff take the complaining patron's side. Often, the odiferous patron is a regular patron who spends hours at the library often on the Internet where PC workstations are relatively close to each other. Yes, I can tell staff it is part of their job to deal with it but often that results in a demoralized angry staff- not something I want to cultivate.
Thank you in advance! This column is very helpful!
I am glad the column is helpful, but this issue really shows the limits of the law!
Before I say what I mean, I need to emphasize three things:
1. State and federal law often protects employees who complain about "working conditions." Since an odor is a "working condition," no matter what position a library takes on "bad" smell (barring it as a disturbance, allowing it as a matter of mission, or a solution somewhere in between), leadership should carefully listen to employees' concerns.
2. While my November 17th answer mused there are several compelling reasons to opt for a more inclusive solution (like use of a "scent free" zone), I want to re-emphasize: that is not what the law requires. Rather, the law requires that people not be barred from library access on the basis of disability or protected characteristics. Since that is a slippery slope, not barring people on the basis of smell (or using a "scent free zone") is a good way to stay in a legally safe zone.
But barring disturbing odors, if done carefully, is still allowed by law.
3. Although I imagine that the member submitting the question didn't mean "taking sides" literally, because it is so critical, I have to say: library employees should never perceptibly "take sides" with one patron against another patron, even if they privately agree that a patron's odor is off-putting. This is because if access is going to be limited, the library must be able to show fair and equitable treatment. An employee with a concern, of course, can take it directly (and discretely) to their supervisor.
So with all that said...
From the legal perspective, the key on the employee side of the "smell" issue is to listen to employees' bona fide concerns about their working conditions. This is true whether your library decides to bar certain smells as "distractions," or to find creative ways that, ultimately, might expose an employee to an unwelcome smell. Above all, whatever approach is taken, it should be clearly set out in a written policy, and decisions under that policy should be well-documented. And to address concerns like the one raised by the member, to the greatest extent possible, the policy should be written with the input of employees, who should also be trained on how to work with it.
But that said...
Does this mean some employees, believing their library should have a more inclusive policy, might have to enforce a restrictive policy? Yes.
Does this mean some employees, not liking their library's more inclusive policy, may have to work near a person whose smell they do not like? Yes.
This is what I mean by "the limits of the law." The law can help libraries foster positive working conditions and employee morale—to a point. After that, it is down to leadership, well-developed polices, and good employee relations.
This is why people often like their HR director more than their lawyer!
 I don't mean employees are entitled to complain all day every day; an employer can require complaints to be conveyed in a way that does not unduly burden productivity. But if an employee is expressing a bona fide concern (it's too cold/it smells/these computers don't work) the National Labor Relations Board has found such expressions to be protected activity.
 This is a tough one. It is not "taking sides" to contribute to a report or Code of Conduct enforcement; my concern is that at all times library employees have to model fairness, so when they take action under a policy, the process looks as fair as possible.
Tags: Policy, Public Libraries