Amber Bridges got fired because of bad body odor, but not hers. Another employee had bad body odor and Bridges tried to solve the problem by bringing in air fresheners and others followed suit. The smelly employee complained to HR and Bridges was fired for creating a "hostile work environment."
A hostile work environment doesn't mean that Bridges was being rude, it means that she violated a law against illegal discrimination. You'll hear this term used most often in relationship to sexual and gender harassment, but it can be used in a case of disability discrimination as well.
Bridges is suing, rather ironically, saying her termination was a result of her association with the stinky co-worker, and that she should be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well.
While we don't have more details than that, I can already tell where this organization went wrong and how Bridges, herself, made mistakes.
Passive Aggressiveness Never Solves Anything
Bridges, understandably, didn't want to smell foul odors at work, so she brought in air fresheners. Problem solved, right? Well, what she should have done is either speak directly to the employee in her role as a team leader or asked the employee's manager to speak with the employee.
Yes, it's emotionally easier to simply spray Febreeze everywhere, but in this case, her actions made the other employee far more uncomfortable than a simple conversation would have.
What Should Bridges Have Done?
As a team lead, Bridges should have spoken to the employee privately or asked the manager or HR to do so. Whoever spoke with the employee should, according to Employment Attorney Jon Hyman "suggest that she pay some attention to her grooming before each workday. That you all have to share the work-space and its air, and everyone should try to respect each other by paying attention to some basic grooming an hygiene."
If the problem was a hygiene one, it's perfectly reasonable and not a violation of law to require employees to shower regularly and wear clean clothing. If the problem employee simply wasn't bathing and didn't respond to a team lead's suggestion, then you should escalate it to HR and let them handle it from there. Honestly, hygiene is something most HR managers learn how to handle in their first six months.
But What if It Was a Disability?
What do you do if the employee reports that yes, she showers every day, yes her clothes are clean, and yes, she wears deodorant, but she still stinks, then you suggest that she see her doctor and begin the process of obtaining protection through the ADA. Chronic body odor can be covered, but the company needs the paperwork filled out.
So, the smelly employee goes to HR, gets the proper paperwork, takes it to her doctor, and then begins something called the interactive process.
The Interactive Process
An employee with an ADA covered disability is entitled to a "reasonable accommodation" and that is determined through a back and forth with the employer. Hanging air fresheners may end up being the solution, but that wouldn't be the only one. The important thing to do is have the back and forth and come to a solution that is satisfactory.
This solution doesn't have to be the employee's first choice, but it does have to be reasonable for all parties. There are some disabilities, of course, which cannot be reasonably accommodated. A person with chronic body odor who works with a computer can be in a private office, but there probably isn't a reasonable accommodation for a waiter with chronic body odor.
Will Bridges Win Her Lawsuit?
While I'm neither a lawyer nor an expert on body odor discrimination, it's pretty clear that her termination wasn't a result of her relationship with the smelly employee, but rather her actions towards said co-worker. I can't see her winning.