I have an employee came into work and they smell of cannabis. I know it’s recreationally legal in my state, but surely that doesn’t mean they can always show up smelling like it at work. She really didn’t seem high but the smell! Patients also noticed it, and I don’t want them to think we have people working under the influence. I sent her home to change clothes. What else am I supposed to do?
We recently noticed this question from a member of our community, which, if you haven’t joined yet, make sure you do. Our community is filled with over 10,000 dental, management, and health professionals who all come together and work through various HR problems they may have in the workplace. And we jump in to help when we can.
We understand how precarious this situation can be as an employer. Never mind how you may feel about using cannabis outside of work; having your practice be at risk with patients noticing the smell is a genuine concern. There is also a natural tendency to assume that the scent indicates recent use.
When an employee comes in smelling like cannabis, it’s not just concerning; it can be frustrating if you are unsure what you can or can not do about it (especially if you are in a state with protections around the use of it…looking at you, New York!). With the ever-increasing number of states that are legalizing not only medical cannabis use but recreational as well, having employees come into the office with that particular smell is becoming all too common. We can confidently report it is becoming a national trend regarding employer concerns.
The primary guidance we want you to take away is to treat this issue like any other unpleasant body odor in the workplace. It is the smell of cannabis that you are addressing, not the use of it (unless, of course, they are noticeably impaired on the premises, which is an entirely different issue).
Remember, all states have different laws surrounding cannabis, so be sure to reach out for help if you are a member of CEDR.
Step 1: Your Handbook Should Properly Address The Issue
This is where having a comprehensive employee handbook (that your employees sign when they onboard with you) is vital to protecting your practice. There are two critical sections of your handbook that you will be referencing when approaching the situation with your employee. If you are a member of CEDR, you have both of these sections within your handbook.
Note that these policies will help you address the employee’s smell, not the use of cannabis (which, again, unless you see your employee noticeably impaired at work, addressing the smell is your main concern here).
- The smoke-free environment policy. It should have verbiage similar to this:
Employees are encouraged to refrain from smoking before and during work hours to ensure that clothing, hair, hands, and breath are smoke-free. The Practice may prevent any employee who smells like smoke from clocking in for their work shift or may ask such an employee to leave. Employees who violate this policy are subject to corrective action and may be held responsible for any fines assessed to the Practice due to the violation.
- The dress code policy. A part of your dress code should indicate that good hygiene includes avoiding wearing things or bringing in strong smells. It is vital when addressing body odor.
The smell of marijuana alone may not indicate that someone is under the influence if they appear to be acting normally. However, it can still warrant disciplinary action when aligned with your policies. We had run into situations before where an employee was the caretaker of a relative undergoing chemotherapy, who had legally obtained it, during lunch for them. That resulted in the smell rather than the employee using it. This is why we will keep mentioning here: in this situation, you are addressing the scent of cannabis, not the use of it.
Step 2: Approach the Employee in Private
Next, prepare to have a conversation with your employee. Gather objective observations you have made regarding the odor they have in your practice. Only focus on facts rather than making assumptions.
Facts could include but are not limited to discussing whether you smelled the cannabis and that it is coming from them. You can ask them if they are using it while working. You can also ask them to explain why. And lastly, you should document their answers by making notes in their personal file.
You can also emphasize the impact of this odor in the reception and/or clinical areas, focusing on how you need to ensure a professional work environment. You can also mention that the smell could (or already) cause concern from patients regarding the quality and safety of the care they can receive at the practice. You can also tell them that it must stop.
Remember, you have your handbook to back you up with this issue. Your handbook clearly states that the smell of smoke is not permitted in the workplace, similar to strong scents of cologne or perfume.
With all of the above in mind, you should be ready to talk with the employee. As mentioned, give them a chance to explain the situation to you. This might resolve the issue entirely, as they could have been unaware of the smell and will start taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
After having this conversation, sending the employee home to change and return, or home for the day, is appropriate to ensure the smell doesn’t continue to linger in your office to prevent patients from possibly smelling it.
Step 3: Document the Conversations
Be sure to document every conversation regarding this incident with your employee. Documentation is critical if this issue persists, and you must move forward with corrective action.
Be sure to follow up with the employee if you continue to smell cannabis on them at work, and document each time you do. Remember, if this crosses over into medical or other protected uses of cannabis, you are documenting as if you have a judge reading everything you write. Because of this, keep your documentation to objective observations, not assumptions or judgments.
For example, rather than documenting…
I had to speak to Stacy about stinking like weed at work. Told her she couldn’t come in again with that horrible smell.
Consider this instead:
Upon arrival on (date here), myself and (name) observed that Stacy had a strong scent of cannabis. Spoke to Stacy regarding the smell of cannabis on her person while at work. I asked her to change into a spare set of clean scrubs. Discussed the policies and clarified that this could not be a continuing issue.
Take a few moments to write down what you asked the employee to improve upon and their acknowledgment (or lack thereof) and file it in that employee’s personnel file. Utilize our corrective action form to ensure these interactions are appropriately documented.
If you are a member of CEDR, storing your documentation in the HR Vault makes it easy for you to gather signatures if necessary and store notes and documents for each employee. Along with this, you can easily create a path of documentation if the issue persists and you need to issue corrective action.
Addressing unpleasant body odor in the workplace is never fun for the manager or the employee involved. However, to make the conversation easier for everyone, make sure it is:
- Full of objective language (rather than assumptions)
- Backed up by your employee handbook
- Consistent across the entire team
As odd as it feels, legal activity off duty is often protected, but smelling bad at work is not.
When employees know the expectations, being approached for something they may be doing that is not in the practice’s best interest gets a little easier when it’s a matter of policy.
If you are a CEDR member dealing with the smell of cannabis in your practice, contact the Solution Center for additional guidance to ensure you comply with state laws that may alter how you handle the situation. If you are not a member, click here for more information on how to join our community.