real life

'My coworkers complained I smelled bad. And it nearly cost me my job.'

Like a lot of other women, I’ve been bitten by the “direct sales bug” more than once in my life. If I didn’t try to sell the stuff myself, I hosted parties to earn free or discounted products.

I am not a natural salesperson. In fact, I hate selling anything. With each new direct sales company, though, I bought into the notion that these products would basically “sell themselves.” In case you missed it? I’m somewhat gullible and a bit more susceptible to advertising than others (though I’ve gotten better with age).

Of course, those direct sales products never did sell themselves. I busted my butt to make any sales.

Yet in my mid-twenties, I kept turning to the fairytale of direct selling associations because I wanted more for my life. More money. More freedom. But I didn’t know how to get there on my own.

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For a while I put a lot of faith into one brand of essential oils. I came on as a “wellness advocate” (or whatever they called it at the time) because I bought into nearly all of the hype about essential oils changing people’s lives.

It seemed promising. My mother and a close coworker were both hooked on them, and so was I. The products were expensive, but I thought they were worth it.

There are a lot of jokes about people who use essential oils today, largely because of avid direct sales consultants who were trained to sell folks essential oils for anything and everything. It’s weird for me because I was so immersed in that culture and watched it crop up as it gained momentum.

Though it’s not like the people peddling essential oils were all crunchy anti-vaxxers. Physicians, chiropractors, accountants, spa owners and even your average Joe were all jumping on the train.

The reality, of course, is that essential oils never cured my migraines, acne, or weight issues. Sometimes they helped, but more often than not, they were these very expensive bandaids.


During my essential oil days, I used to work in an office for a leading cleaning chemicals company. My first few years there were spent in the credit call centre, mostly dealing with disgruntled sales representatives and customers. It was an interesting job because I got this behind-the-scenes look at major restaurant chains and various retailers.

Back then, I was pretty desperate to improve my lot in life. But clueless. I began using essential oils on my face to help clear up my acne.

Then, when Christmas time rolled around, I didn’t think too much about adding an essential oil ornament that doubled as a diffuser to my cubicle.

At that point, I’d been using essential oils for a few months with no complaints. But that damn Christmas ornament changed things. Within ten minutes, the three older women who worked on the other side of me began whispering.

“What’s that smell?”

“Oh my God, that’s disgusting.”

“Eww, who is that?”

Picking up the ornament, I awkwardly piped up from my cube. “Is this the problem?” I held up the little ornament and explained that it was an essential oil thing. Cinnamon, pine, etc.

I felt like hiding under my desk when the women responded that my ornament was indeed the culprit. After apologising profusely for bothering them, I assured them I wouldn’t use it again.

And I didn’t.

But that still wasn’t the end of it.

The next day, the coworkers on the other side of the cubes kept whispering amongst themselves and I had a bad feeling that they were talking about me.

That afternoon, I was called upstairs into HR and told that I was using scented products which caused headaches. “You can’t use scented products at work because somebody else might be allergic.”

I found the situation a little bit odd. No one had said anything about the oils for more than three months until I broke out the Christmas oil that one time.

They also didn’t complain about the coworker on my team who used a different oil at work (which smells mostly like wintergreen). They were only complaining about me.

I explained to the HR specialist why I used the oils at work (for my chronic migraines which were already on record with the company). My headaches weren’t cured, but they were better.


That said, I still needed to keep my job, so I told HR that I wouldn’t use the oils at work any more. And I meant it.

That evening, I took my entire stash home.

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About a week later, I was called back up to HR.

“I thought we talked about this,” the specialist said in a clearly irritated voice. “I’m still getting complaints from your coworkers that there is an overpowering smell giving them headaches.”

“I’m not sure what to do,” I told her. “I took everything home. I don’t use oils at work.”

“Do you think it could just be… you?” she asked pointedly.

I narrowed my eyes and waited to see what she was getting at.

“Maybe you need to wash your clothes,” she suggested. “Or shower more? You’re sitting here and I can definitely smell something.”

There were a million thoughts racing in my head and I knew I had to choose my words carefully at that point.

“Well, I do wash my clothes regularly,” I said slowly. “And I don’t wear dirty clothes to work.” I paused awkwardly. “I also shower every day.”

This was already the most awkward conversation I could imagine having at work, so I went ahead and asked her, “Is there any particular smell you’ve getting? At home, I do use things like tea tree oil, peppermint, wintergreen, and grapefruit oils.”

The woman in HR could never tell me what she smelled. Just that it was “something.” At a loss, I told her that I’d quit using essential oils altogether to see if that helped. Again, I meant it.

As I headed back to my desk, I checked in with a couple of friendlier coworkers. “I need you to be painfully honest with me,” I told them. “Do I… smell? Is there any sort of scent wafting from me? And would you mind checking out my cube to see if that smells?”

I couldn’t get anyone to tell me that I smelled. Except of course, for that HR person and the three employees who complained that I stunk.

Every day for two weeks, the same woman in HR called me upstairs to tell me that I still smelled. “I walked past your cubicle today and it still really smells,” she would tell me. She insisted that I must still be using problematic products.


F*ck my life, I thought. They’re probably going to fire me.

The whole situation was humiliating. I was already battling a lot of anxiety at the time about gaining some weight and somehow “bothering people,” so I frequently spent the entire day at my desk. My anxiety about “being seen” kept me from using the bathroom or eating lunch on many days. Now I was constantly on edge about being smelled.

On one hand, I thought, Oh my god, these stupid essential oils have ruined my life.

But on the other hand, all of the aggravation and disgust regarding my stench didn’t seem completely genuine. No one could label or describe the offensive smell beyond claiming it was me.

To make matters worse, we’re talking about a cleaning chemical company that had a store we could visit on our breaks filled with overpowering smells. Our restrooms were equipped with some of the most potent and fake fruity scents which led to zero complaints.

They also manufactured air neutralizers which they could have used in the area if there was a real problem… but they didn’t do that.

Instead, we had the awkward conversation that “Shannon stinks” for two weeks until somebody finally suggested that our entire three-person team be moved to a vacant corner of the call centre if I wanted to continue to work for the company. Because I allegedly smelled so bad, but luckily, the two coworkers closest to me had no problems being around me.

So, what happened?

The three of us moved over to the corner of the call centre and enjoyed a much more quiet atmosphere with a gorgeous view of the lake outside.

It also wasn’t the last issue I’d have with HR, but it was the last time they ever accused me of stinking up the joint. And I did develop a healthier relationship with essential oils as I realised they weren’t the big cure-all that people claimed.

These days when people ask me if I’ve tried essential oils for whatever ails me, I get to say “why yes, I have.”

I also get to drop my own little warning that hey, if you happen to use them at work it could cost you your job. Then again, who knows? You might just wind up with a better cubicle, which might be its own form of stress relief.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Shannon Ashley, you can find her here.

Feature Image: Getty.