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My manager just started allowing smoking cigarettes in the office today because he and another guy like it. I hate it and I'm having trouble breathing. I'm considering walking out this afternoon but I know I'm pretty valuable and my manager's said he'd hate to lose me. Would it be professional to just go home early and email my manager that I'm working from home until there isn't smoke in the office anymore?

I know that this is probably illegal but I don't know how to stop this.

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    Have you brought up the issue with your manager before or is this your first reaction to the situation? – TheSexyMenhir Jun 18 at 9:32
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    have you actually tried talking in a civil way rather than making demands? – Emobe Jun 18 at 15:27
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    What type of establishment is this. In New jersey, to the best of my knowledge, smoking is permitted in:• Hotels, motels or other lodging establishments • Within the perimeters of casino gaming areas, and casino simulcasting facilities; • Registered cigar bars or lounges ; • Tobacco retail establishments – Michael J. Jun 18 at 20:54

11 Answers 11

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Be careful of ultimatums

You have every right to want a smoke-free work environment and are entitled to one by law. In your shoes, I would consider quitting myself. However, if you want to give them a chance to fix the problem you are simply more likely to achieve your goal by not making demands.

{Boss},

I had to leave early today because the smoke was bothering me. I would also like to request that you discontinue smoking in the office, as it is a serious health concern and something I do not want to be exposed to.

The e-mail is a good idea because it leaves a "paper trail". If your boss doesn't comply then ramp it up. Send a stronger e-mail citing the source from Mister Positive (New Jersey regulations).

According to {source}, it is illegal to smoke in the workplace. If it is going to continue, then I am not going to put my health at risk by coming in to work. I hope you choose to do the legal thing here.

Don't threaten lawsuits or regulatory committees. If you are prepared to go through them then just do it. I know I would be but you need to make that choice.

I'd also like to add the suggestion by Monica Cellio ♦, which is to use the word "deal-breaker". This word conveys that you are willing to quit over the issue without making demands.

To quote her comment:

I'm sorry, but I'm allergic1 to cigarette smoke so smoking in the office is a deal-breaker for me (followed by "can we address this?" or similar).


1 See clarifying comment on use of the word allergic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Jun 19 at 5:17
  • The New Jersey regulations which you link to list "Indoor public places where smoking is still permitted". If OP's place of work falls into that category (they haven't stated one way or the other) then how should they proceed? – Aaron F Jun 19 at 12:00
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    +1 for the initial email, although I might add something along the lines of "I joined the company on the expectation of a smoke free office and I'm not going to be able to remain in the office if it becomes smoky. Can we discuss ways to manage this?". That gives them something specific to respond to. Then go on to stage 2 if they don't help. – Alchymist Jun 19 at 16:00
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    Read the linked comment, but don't get it. Why would you say "allergic" to smoking instead of something more blunt: "I won't put my health at risk by coming to a workplace which may cause cancer." Seems like a very legit reason to me (even as an ex-smoker myself). – rkeet Jun 20 at 10:24
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    @rkeet for someone who is allergic, the repercussions are more immediate. I wouldn't put it that way; I'm not allergic. The person I quoted did. The footnote was because the wordchoice kept getting challenged. – TheGirlHasNoName Jun 20 at 10:29
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You tagged your location as New Jersey. To be clear, what your employer is doing is very much illegal. Here are some references:

https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/compliance-enforcement-training/report-potential-tobacco-product-violation

https://www.nj.gov/health/fhs/tobacco/regulations/

You said,

I know that this is probably illegal but I don't know how to stop this.

Regardless of you quitting or not, your boss faces serious legal trouble and exposes himself to lawsuits for enacting this policy. If you're comfortable expressing that to your boss, you should do so. If you're not comfortable or he retaliates, it would make sense to no longer go to work, report him to the proper authorities, and call a lawyer.

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    IANL but I suspect that not turning up to work due to an ongoing health issue, which is exasperated by a literally toxic work environment, which the employer is doing nothing to rectify seems completely legal to me. It is upto the employer to create an environment which is safe for the employee to work in. Not only would you be clear, but your employer would need to continue to pay your salary until he rectifies the work environment, which could be much more costly than just stopping the smoking. – Aron Jun 18 at 3:15
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    @Aron great point, because the longer it goes on the higher the cleaning bill to decontaminate the office. – user Jun 18 at 15:07
  • You say "what your employer is doing is very much illegal" but then the second link you provided has a section titled "Indoor public places where smoking is still permitted". It seems like there's a potential loophole here where what the employer is doing might not actually be illegal. – Aaron F Jun 19 at 11:57
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    The word "office" lead me to believe the OP's workplace was not one of the very limited exceptions. Even in a place where smoking is allowed (say, a hotel) it's still illegal in the portions of the building you would consider an "office" and is generally allowed in guest-focused areas. Also - the limited places where smoking is legally allowed would have almost certainly already allowed it. It's not like there's a smoke-free casino out there that's going to just arbitrarily decide to allow smoking one day. – dwizum Jun 19 at 14:02
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    The FDA link concerns the distribution of tobacco products and has nothing to do with an employer's decision to permit or prohibit smoking in the office. – phoog Jun 19 at 17:51
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Inform your manager that due to the "Smoke-Free Air Act of 2006" his actions are illegal. Politely request he bring the office air quality up to code.

(I am not a Lawyer, this is not legal advice.)

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    They probably don't know it's illegal and tipping them off to that too soon may make it harder to get a paper trail should the OP need one. – David Schwartz Jun 18 at 3:03
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    @jwenting No, it's the second step. The first step is to ask them to stop, in writing, and get them to tell you they're not going to, in writing. – David Schwartz Jun 18 at 8:12
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    @jwenting That would not be a smart thing to do because that pretty much ensures that they don't respond to you by telling you that they're not going to stop which would be an incredibly valuable piece of evidence to have. You want to get them to say in writing that they aren't going to stop so that you have proof that the illegal behavior occurred and was tolerated. – David Schwartz Jun 18 at 8:35
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    If you're hiding the fact that it's illegal from them so that you can get in writing that they're doing it, so you can have a paper trail... I'm pretty sure the rest of your working days in that company are going to be total hell. And you'd deserve every minute of it imho. – Erik Jun 18 at 8:40
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    @Erik Hiding? This should be blatantly obvious to the boss (or anyone else for that matter). It's the boss' responsibility to make sure he, his employees and their work environment/office/... are compliant with the law. This is not the responsibility of the employee and he is well within his right to merely ask his boss to stop without mentioning the law. Which would also be a more polite 'opener' to this discussion imho. – Blub Jun 18 at 13:06
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HR is not your friend... BUT in this case, actually it's not your managers friend. I wouldn't bother talking to your manager about this; at all.

He will know full well that he's breaking the law; and if he doesn't; it's not your place to tell him so. Trying to tell your boss what to do will ALWAYS end badly.

HR however may thank you for the tip off - as others say it might actually save the company a significant amount of money from building lease issues to law suits to cleaning. They'll be well aware that it's not legal. They'll also be in a position to enforce the issue should he say no.

Further to this; one of the very first questions should you want to start a law suit will be "well why didn't you tell HR - how can the company react if you don't report the problem; your manager is not the one responsible for health/safety/office". (IANAL)

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    If the company is big enough to have a health & safety officer, you can also complain to them. – Simon B Jun 19 at 10:36
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    "Trying to tell your boss what to do will ALWAYS end badly." As with most ALWAYS/NEVER statements, this is not completely true. Tone and framing really matter, as do the content and context of the recommendation. – WBT Jun 19 at 17:47
  • @WBT you're right - I'll rephrase. Trying to tell your boss what to do when they don't care about the law or your health will always end badly ;) – UKMonkey Jun 21 at 9:43
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I'd suggest the following :

  • A brief formal request in email to stop smoking in the workplace, stating is a legal entitlement to have a smoke free workplace. Don't be inflammatory but simply state the facts.

  • If that fails address your complaint directly to HR, emphasizing the health and safety and legal aspects. Health and safety concerns are normally the preserve of HR and they typically take them seriously.

  • If you have a union talk to them about it. They can sometimes influence management (via HR) in a way that an individual cannot. Again unions typically take health and safety issues seriously.

  • Failing that you have only one course of action : quit. You probably should state quite clearly that you tried and failed to have this matter addressed normally and have no choice to to leave for your own health. You have the option of speaking to a union or lawyer about a formal/legal route to seek redress, but that goes with the usual caveat that these are never quick procedures and they can cause as much (if not more) stress than the original issue did.

I know that this is probably illegal but I don't know how to stop this.

Keep in mind that you may not be able to stop this. Being right is not always the same as getting the right result.

I know I'm pretty valuable and my manager's said he'd hate to lose me.

But clearly this manager values their own gratification more than your work. Be skeptical about what they say. IMO, if it has reached this point then they do not value you or your work at all.

Would it be professional to just go home early and email my manager that I'm working from home until there isn't smoke in the office anymore?

No. As pointed out by others you are just complicating the situation. You could well be playing into the hands of a manager who would prefer to see you fired than to give up their smokes. Don't give your employers ammunition for firing you for not doing your job.

If the smoke has an immediate impact on your health (asthma, something like that) you should ask your doctor for a letter and address that to your HR department (or bosses boss) to seek immediate remedy by working from home or stopping the problem or changing department. Again if that gets you nowhere then leaving (or accepting the situation) is your only option.

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    +1 for the union — this is what they're for. Individual employees may be vulnerable when "making trouble", but through the union, employees stand together in organised solidarity with a power that an individual will never have. – gerrit Jun 18 at 15:24
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    On top of all that, it likely violates your company's lease. You could anonymously tell the landlord to come around and catch them in the act. – TKK Jun 18 at 15:54
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    +1 for HR.. though I think they would be my first port of call. They're going to come down on that manager like a ton of flaming bricks because they know that the next step is a lawsuit. – UKMonkey Jun 18 at 17:08
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    +1 for HR as well. They're not your friends, but in this case, they are a very powerful ally. I would start the conversation with "I'm concerned that my manager is opening up the company for lawsuits by smoking in the building..." – Ghedipunk Jun 18 at 19:52
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    Why do you need a letter from a doctor? It is a medical fact that exposure to cigarette smoke causes serious diseases - it says it right there on the packet. You simply have to insist on a safe working environment. – Oscar Bravo Jun 19 at 10:24
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Your manager allowing smoking, without consulting others, let alone considering the law, is quite unprofessional, but lack of professionalism on the part of others isn't blanket license for you to be unprofessional. If you find the smoke intolerable, the professional thing to do is to give your manager an opportunity to rectify the situation before just leaving work.

If your manager insists on smoking in the workplace, however, then it is reasonable to refuse to work there. I would not even consider it "quitting". Not only is not having smoke a reasonable expectation, it is legally mandated. Thus, this is grounds for a constructive dismissal claim.

  • If the smoke is "intolerable", why are you suggesting tolerating it until the manager agrees to stop? (Unless you just mean that the asker should say "Sorry but could you stop smoking, please?" and only walk out if the answer is no.) – David Richerby Jun 20 at 16:02
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Some good answers, but I think no one mentioned another important point: be prepared to get fired. A manager willing to violate the smoking law is also willing to violate laws against retaliation. And if he/she is of average intelligence, will not find it difficult to fabricate a plausible legal reason for the firing.

I’ve seen it happen, to me and to others.

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    I would definitely say tip him off anonymously. Leaving a copy of the legislation with a post-it note saying FYI on his desk or sending it via a throwaway e-mail address (ccing in HR) would probably be the best solution if it's not traceable back to you. Yep, it sounds unprofessional not to talk like adults but I'd rather do that than lose my job. – NibblyPig Jun 19 at 12:43
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    Then he knows it comes from someone in his department who doesn’t smoke. – WGroleau Jun 19 at 14:41
  • No "plausible legal reason" required in most cases. Most employment contracts in the US are "at will" - your employment can be terminated at any time, without reason or explanation. – Bob Jarvis Jun 19 at 23:36
  • @BobJarvis, mostly true. There are certain types of discrimination that are illegal. Retaliation for whistle-blowing is one of them. But (my point) to win, you have to convince the judge/jury that they are lying when they claim some other reason for firing. – WGroleau Jun 20 at 0:02
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Would it be professional to just go home early and email my manager that I'm working from home until there isn't smoke in the office anymore?

No, that would not be professional.

The professional thing to do when confronted with a difficult situation is to talk to your manager directly. If this is that important of an issue for you, then tell them so.

And if you don't sense that the manager will refrain, either transfer to a different department within your company, or start the process for finding a new job elsewhere. Apply, interview, get and accept a formal offer, give your notice, work out the notice period, and start your new job.

Whatever destination you choose, make sure you learn about their smoking policy before accepting the job.

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    "Will you be setting fire to toxic chemicals and letting the resulting smoke drift through the office, in blatant violation of the law?" is not generally something I think to ask in an interview. – Acccumulation Jun 18 at 14:44
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    I suspect the issue with this answer is the advice that follows. Talking to your manager directly leaves no paper trail, making it far more difficult to protect yourself should retaliation occur. That is probably bad advice. Transferring/looking for a new job is probably good advice, but "learn about their smoking policy before accepting the job" is actually useless advice here for two reasons. First, because allowing smoking at the workplace is actually in violation of the law, and second because that policy did not exist when OP was hired ("manager just started allowing smoking... today"). – MrSpudtastic Jun 18 at 15:25
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    I'd also argue that it is completely professional to leave work early in order to avoid exposure to something as harmful as cigarette smoke. – TheGirlHasNoName Jun 18 at 15:58
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    It would be unusual in an interview for an office job to ask a whole bunch of questions to determine if the basic working conditions will comply with the law. Should they also ask whether the water cooler is laced with amphetamines? Whether they'll be paid in local currency or company scrip? Whether the office doors are chained shut during working hours? And in this case, it sounds like the smoking policy was changed on the OP, so even if they had asked during the interview, that's no guarantee that the answer won't change later. – Zach Lipton Jun 19 at 5:21
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    Suppose the manager decided to allow some guys to set up a shooting range in the corridor and you had to dodge the bullets to go for a coffee? would the OP be at fault for not checking the gun-play policy before taking the job? – Oscar Bravo Jun 19 at 10:28
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It would be unprofessional to walk out early because you don't like being in the presence of illegal workplace smoking.

However, if the in-office cigarette smoke is making you feel sick, you are within your rights to take a few hours of sick leave and go home. Document it in writing and cc: corporate HR.

This is an extreme tactic that will burn bridges with your manager; don't go to this level until after you have shown the manager a copy of the law he is breaking (in email so you can document that you politely asked him to fix the problem and he refused) and given him a chance to fix the problem himself.

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    I'm curious to know how you justify saying that walking out on a manager partaking in illegal activity is not grounds to walk out. To take this further, what if he murdered a co-worker? Would it still be unprofessional to walk out, assuming the sight of the body didn't make you feel sick? – Shadow Jun 19 at 2:18
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    @Shadow In the kind of organizations that regularly engage in wetwork, it would probably be seen as very unprofessional. – Therac Jun 19 at 7:10
  • Fine... Make that "partaking in illegal activity not previously agreed to" :P – Shadow Jun 20 at 3:45
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Is OSHA aware of this? It might just be a very good time for "someone" to "anonymously" tip them off.

They'll make an inspection and smell tobacco smoke. Problem solved without you having to say a thing to those smokers.

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Never just leave without asking. Its right next to quitting. Wear a mask, seriously, a smoke blocking mask, they are not that much and worth the price compared to finding a new job. If you are really determined, it is illegal, you can report it anonymously, do it at a time that seems like someone else could have. But, most states have decent whistle blower laws, and he is risking your health. Do not leave work and don't use email to communicate with your boss. Always call, its old school, but it shows guts, and it won't be confused as something else, written works can be misconstrued. I might consider going into this "friend" of his' office and telling him to knock it the eff off, he's not your boss. Tell him the next cigarette smoked in his office by him is going up his nose lit end first. You must do it in a joking manner. Make it known to him its not ok, and bring out the alpha in yourself if you have it, stand tall, look him in the eyes and get as close to him as possible, that works for me but I'm 6'4 and 250lbs of Viking. And I do get very angry with disrespect like that, it almost sounds like their f77king with you to get a reaction. Whatever the case they are stupid and unprofessional and you may lose your job.

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    Calling doesn't leave a trail which will actually work against you. In addition, telling someone in a professional capacity "telling him to knock it the eff off" is not the right answer either. "you may lose your job" is not the best end to advice for this forum. – IT Alex Jun 19 at 13:13
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    this answer is a perfect example of the expression "two wrongs don't make a right" – Aaron F Jun 20 at 9:34

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