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To be explicit: this is my problem. I'm not "blaming" the new guy (actually he's rather nice). That said ...

I'm allergic to smoke. When I was younger, I went "out on the town" only once or twice a year, because I would "pay for it" for a few days afterward. I also avoided friends' parties (which sucked) or just came by for a short while to at least "make an appearance".

At the office, we have one big room with "clusters" of 4 desks. A new guy started quite recently, and he's sitting diagonally across from me in one of these clusters.

A few of my colleagues smoke. They (by law have to) go outside to do their business, and then come back in. Most of 'em, you can smell that they're smokers; a few of them you actually can't; and then there's, um, Joe. I don't know what he smokes, but he reeks fiercely.

When Joe is closer to me than 2 metres, I have reactions -- find it difficult to breathe, it stings in my eyes. We've already had a project together, and he helpfully came around to my desk to discuss some code on my screen, and I literally could hardly breathe.

How can I ask my manager to relocate him, without me looking coming across as a jerk in the process?

I'm always at a loss for how to say something about this -- without coming across as unintentionally hostile. As I said, he's a nice guy, I just can't tolerate his stench.

Update: Wow, this really woke people up. I would like to make two points: (a) I do not know for a fact whether I am "allergic", suffer from "asthma" or "vasomotor rhinitis induced by chemical irritation" (thank you so much for the knowledge you've shared), I only know that it's hella uncomfortable, and has been for my entire life; and (b) I will not try to resolve this by adding more chemicals (in the form of chewing gum or air freshener), because it doesn't work that way. I need to have the "offending chemicals" removed, not masked.

Update 2: What I believe sets this apart from the "possible duplicate" Smoking with the front door open is that this is not about (a) "breaking a rule", (b) "snitching", or (c) being in any way secretive. The reason I haven't already resolved this on my own is purely due to the risk of social fall-out from me being Bad With Words.

Final(?) update: I ended up writing a friendly, open and honest email to my manager, and waited for her to consider it. We then had a private face-to-face meeting. The outcome is that maybe I'll move to the next "island", but for now we'll both stay where we are -- he's got a whole bunch of assignments coming up that would have him be located at clients for long stretches at a time (I did not know of this until today). I might have a talk with him directly at some point in the future, if it proves necessary. As a closing note, I wish to give all of you a big heart-felt thank you for your consideration and inputs.

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The I'm not "blaming" the new guy. You don't have to; I'm doing it for you. Scientific American: what is third-hand smoke? scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-third-hand-smoke – Kaz Mar 11 at 2:55
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@KlaymenDK - likely you have an objective (measurable) medical condition. Consider approach from my answer, downvoted all the way down by people who lack understanding of asthma (like general population does). I don't write answers anymore in this forum, I made exception because wanted to help you with information about asthma triggers. Good luck! – Peter Masiar Mar 11 at 17:38
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@Kaz Every year it seems there's something more dangerous than the last. Scientific American is misleading: Winickoff et al carried out a phone survey to assess whether people believe third-hand smoke is dangerous or not, they did not measure the effects of... n-hand smoke. Here is a literature review on the matter (knocking Scientific American for sensationalism here, not you Kaz). Third-hand smoke is accumulative over long periods of time. The OP is probably going to be fine. – rath Mar 11 at 23:22
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Possible duplicate of Smoking with the front door open – Jim G. Mar 13 at 4:34
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Let's be clear, this is not your problem, it is most likely a problem for entire office, it's just that others are either bothered less due to their physiology or where they sit, or they hide their discomfort. Those trying to quit smoking are definitely affected, past smokers are typically affected, and non-smokers are affected to a lesser degree. Don't hide it. Try 1-1 with this individual, if that doesn't work, plug other smokers into discussion, if that fails, talk to management. – qarma Mar 14 at 9:49
up vote 87 down vote accepted

Have a face-to-face conversation with your manager in private and open with something like this:

I feel a bit of awkward for bringing this up but it's starting to affect my work. [As you may have noticed] tobacco smoke is an asthma1 trigger for me to the point where I have trouble breathing when I'm exposed to it. While I don't normally have a problem with other colleagues, Joe's smoking seems to cause a lot more third-hand smoke which triggers my symptoms whenever he's within a few meters of me. He's well within his rights to smoke but I was hoping that you could relocate him to the next island [i.e. cluster of desks] so that I'm not constantly affected.

At this point you pause and see where the conversation goes. Ideally your manager will be receptive and you can discuss more than just a relocation. Smoking bans are a tricky subject, but in many countries and companies, basic hygiene standards can be required which can include not reeking of smoke. If your manager avoids the broader problem you should at the very least be able to have Joe moved to another desk.

If you know your manager to be reliable and reasonable then you can suggesting a solution and leave it up to him how to handle the problem. If you're worried that your manager might not take you seriously or want to avoid seeming cliquish, you could ask that one of you is moved instead, as RobM explains:

Phrasing the point that way makes it clearer that [you're] purely trying to find a solution to the smoke issue, not force the newbie out of the area because they don't fit in with a clique, or some other such nonsense. It suggests that [you] take the matter of your health in this matter seriously enough to inconvenience yourself, which will hopefully underline the need to resolve this problem to your manager.


1 - As far as I'm aware, there's no such thing as a smoking allergy. What you describe sounds like an asthma attack or sensitivity to smoke. Substitute whatever language you wish to use. Note that in some countries you might be asked for a doctor's note or the like if you want to invoke certain medical protections, like FMLA in the US.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Mar 12 at 21:27
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You can be allergic to almost anything including tobacco. I am, although my reaction is more classical, I have sneezing fits. There is also a significant number of people who classify asthma as an allergic response, For example my mother had an asthmatic response to cat dander. – hildred Mar 14 at 8:53

I would just tell him. I'm a heavy smoker and if someone straight out told me that, which they actually have more than once. I resolve it by taking toothbrush and paste to work with me. I do the same thing before entering a clients premises. Quickly brush my teeth and wash my hands to take the edge off the smoke smell.

An additional good remedy is to wear a jacket while you smoke, then remove it before you return to your work.

Taking it up with the manager is not something I would do in your position until after a friendly talk with the guy.

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+1 for taking ownership of mitigating the effect of your smoking on your surroundings. Thank you! – KlaymenDK Mar 10 at 12:04
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All the same, the smell of smoke is not just in the breath - I never get that close to my colleagues! - but it persists in the clothes. Most of my colleagues have lost the smell by the time they get back upstairs, but we had one, he smoked foul French filterless things, he was unbearable. – RedSonja Mar 10 at 12:59
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Want to reiterate what RedSonja said - when a heavy smoker is around, my asthma can be triggered. It's clear that the smell is coming from their clothes. I appreciate the effort, but be aware that clothing is a larger contributor. – Joel Mar 10 at 14:02
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Yeah, being up front and honest with people typically leads to the least amount of misunderstanding. Some simple conversation like "dude, I like having you around, and it's nothing against you, but sometimes second hand smoke smell triggers some allergies I developed years ago, are you OK with me asking for you to move to that other table?" might do loads to uh...clear the air? :) – rogerdpack Mar 10 at 14:49
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Most smokers don't realize that the smell of smoke is really strong. I'm a smoker too, and I don't smell the stench that sticks to my clothes after smoking. I only observed the stench when I stopped smoking for a couple of months and a colleague enters the office after smoking and I can smell the sickly-sweet odor. Telling the smoker politely that you can smell it, actually helps. – Burning Crystals Mar 11 at 1:56

As a former smoker, I have dealt with this situation from the other direction in an couple of instances.

When my smoke bothers others, I would simply prefer they approach me directly. People who fake a cough from 100 yards (or meters, roughly the same) upwind are simply pretentious.

Because a colleague of mine addressed my residual odors, I took to wearing a trench coat when I went out. I convinced the office manager to place a wardrobe near the back door and myself and other smokers began keeping our coats in there. Also, I would spend an extra two or three minutes outside after finishing a cigarette to allow my lungs and clothing to air out.

At a different office I was the only smoker until "the new guy." When there were complaints of his lingering smoke, his manager approached me asking for suggestions on how to bring the matter to this person's attention. I offered to speak with him the next time I saw him go out to smoke and share some of my deodorizing tips with him.

When I followed him out, I found he would hide in his car with the windows rolled up trying to hide his habit. Because there were so few smokers in a rather large office and he had heard whisperings he felt uncomfortable smoking in the open. I talked with him and let him know that sitting in the enclosed space was only making it worse and shared some tips such as how I wore my smoking jacket and aired out after smoking. At this office, there was no wardrobe or coat room for me to keep my jacket so I showed him the dry cleaners bag I would use to wrap up my coat before returning inside. He followed my tips and I didn't hear further complaints of him.

To summarize: If you're comfortable with approaching him directly, do so but don't try to be indirect. Otherwise, if you are close with a less malodorous smoker in the office ask if they could breach the subject with him and share some tips for not being so inadvertently offensive.

As a side note: Since I have quit smoking I have become physiologically intolerant of cigarette smoke, so I am now getting the experience "from the other, other side"

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Haha, right, fake a cough. Thanks, it's nice to clear up that it's all just pretentious and in the head ;) Seriously, though, some people are that sensitive. And in some environments, a hundred meters isn't enough to dispell that smoke. It's particularly horrible right now in winter where I work - people smoking under a roof (just a roof over sidewalk, not a room), the smoke just stays there. I can manage the coughing if I'm prepared, but when I'm not paying attention, it just happens. Regardless of the coughing, it's very uncomfortable anyway. I have the same problem with parfums. – Luaan Mar 11 at 14:06
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I didn't intend to suggest that you do, simply illustrating a way some people, such as my mom, are quite ineffective at addressing this type of problem. Yes smoke can linger and travel but not upwind. – psaxton Mar 11 at 14:10
    
Modern day "smoking jacket"! – NicolasMiari Mar 12 at 3:24
    
all the fake coughers make me laugh. it's like that old bill hicks joke, "shit, you're lucky you don't smoke!" – sgroves Mar 12 at 17:34
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Fake coughers are no more rude than smokers. Smokers affect everyone downwind. – Ronnie W. Mar 13 at 0:25

I think you should go to your manager and tell him/her exactly what you just explained here to us. It's your manager's job to deal with this kind of situations. You are not being hostile or a complainer. There's a situation which is causing you to feel unwell, it's repeated, and it's avoidable.

Maybe your manager will be able to relocate him, if it's suitable for the project. Another option your manager might follow is asking your colleague not to smoke during working hours, but this is much more complicated in many ways.

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There is no "smoking allergy" but there are asthma triggers. They can be as trivial and unbelievable for the low-informed public as a presence of a dog or cat in a room. In fact, tobacco smoke is a common one. So you need to learn about asthma, and specifically about your asthma (which is different from asthma of someone else, with different triggers). The worse your asthma attacks are, the more important is to learn what you are talking about.

Try to tell your colleagues about your asthma and triggers, it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is not a consequence of any of your bad decisions, just bad luck of draw in genes. If someone is allergic on some food, s/he would not be required to eat it? You are allergic to some particles in air, so you should not have to breathe them. Another common problem is working around someone with lots of perfume. Or who things that burning incense is pleasant smell for everyone.

If you feel brave (or do this exercise with few close colleagues), give them experience how it is to breathe with asthma attack: let them breathe for 5 minutes through soda straw, and see if they like it. So they will be on your side. But likely nobody will understand your concerns, that's how the life is for the people with asthma.

I assume you tried to "just talk" and it did get you anywhere, as it usually does, because general public lacks the awareness and understanding what asthma attack is and just does not care, because it is hard to believe how such trivial thing as a cat (or smell from a smoker) can prevent you from breathing.

Next step is escalate - talk to your doctor, allergologist. Find a good one, specializing on asthma, who understand the triggers (because most doctors can kind of ignore the complexity of asthma, if affects only minority of the population and for most people, symptoms are not as severe as OP's).

Ask him to make battery of tests, to find your triggers. Armed with this report, talk to your manager (so manager can see it is real condition and not you being difficult). General public can afford to be pretty ignorant, because severe asthma is a problem for maybe 1% of the population, and it is not a visible condition. Don't expect your manager doing any research on this - bring him/her some brochures about asthma and triggers from the office of your doctor. From general population POV, you look normal. You will be lucky if manager will believe you - because some will not.

But IMHO you will be better off relocating yourself to some corner of office with less triggers around and less exposure. And you can add local air filter just for yourself.

You may also need to analyze the trigger chart from your doctor and remove other triggers from your home and life, like pets (cats can by pretty bad), carpets, dust and bedding mites. And add yoga exercises to your daily schedule, to lower the level of stress in your life. And consider your diet, it is likely you have low level cross-allergies to some other food stuff, like wheat or milk.

Speaking as someone with detailed knowledge of asthma medical conditions (and after consulting with allergologist). My friend can only accept a job in office with hardwood floor or lino, so bad is the carpet mites for their asthma.

Other problematic situations was "bring your dog to work day". In one case I know, my friend needed to leave the work on the spot, because unable to breathe. Spent hour outside, waiting to allergic reaction to go away enough to be able to drive home. And using strong allergy medication which can be used only once a day, and it kills your immune system (steroids). Without previous paperwork from doctor, how would boss looked at such rapid leave? General public has no knowledge what life with asthma is, as commenter proved for me.

Level of necessary understanding from boss is proportional the severity of OP's asthma.

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Comments are intended to ephemeral and impermanent. Useful information and clarification should be edited into the post, not left as necessary-to-read comments. – JDługosz Mar 12 at 21:43
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This would make sense if OP actually had asthma. While I can't conclusively deny the possibility, evidence points to vasomotor rhinitis induced by chemical irritation. The same chemical irritation that some fragrance formulas cause people to suffer, but in OPs case result from airborne phenols, furans, carbonyls and other compounds proven to irritate the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract when absorbed. – CMosychuk Mar 13 at 1:34
    
@PeterMasiar, +1: I for one am thankful for your valuable input; I will certainly take this into account (whether or not it's "asthma" or "vasomotor rhinitis induced by chemical irritation"). – KlaymenDK Mar 13 at 13:04
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I joined this community simply to up vote your answer. The medical perspective in this area. The other point to consider is that your employer could be liable for any medical issues you develop as a result of the workplace environment, especially if it is something he can control. – FundThmCalculus Mar 13 at 19:02
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@JDługosz - No I will not waste time on meta. I gave up on this forum, have no intentions to change it in any way. Quality of answers are more mixed bag than others sub-exchanges. I would not bother answering at all, but asthma is something I care about and understand. I wanted to help OP, I do not care about forum. If I could done it by private message, I would prefer that way, to avoid all this abuse from ignorant masses. – Peter Masiar Mar 14 at 15:17

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