Employees with TMAU speak out

The internet is full of articles, social media posts, and videos shaming employees who have any noticeable body odor. Often published in the form of advice by self-described experts addressing company managers, this material perpetuates medically inaccurate assumptions about the causes of odor, erases disabilities like TMAU, and legitimizes odor-related discrimination in workplaces.

It comes as a refreshing change, then, to read a new article about odor in the workplace which, for once, centers the standpoints of victims rather than perpetrators of olfactory discrimination. The article interviews people with TMAU, three employees and one university student, highlighting experiences familiar to workers with TMAU across the globe. These include disrespect, bullying, and non-meritocratic treatment. Echoing a theme common within the TMAU community, one of the interviewees describes giving up his intended professional career and switching to a delivery job, where he’s “on the road most of the time” and therefore has “little interaction with colleagues and customers.” 

The interviewees’ narratives are a reminder that people with TMAU continue to suffer explicit, unapologetic forms of discrimination. This distances them from a pattern, described by employees with other kinds of disability, in which crude ableist harassment is increasingly being replaced by more subtle types of marginalization. In a recent piece on disability-inclusive workplaces, for instance, a disabled employee illustrates this change by quoting a conversation with a colleague: ““People don’t make fun of us anymore,” I said. She smiled and replied, “They just ignore us.”” This trend should not be understood as an improvement, since disabled employees continue to be objectified and treated as inferior in new ways. Still, the persistence of overt bullying toward TMAU demonstrates that to the modest degree that ableist workplace cultures are becoming conscious of the need to at least pay lip service to inclusion of disabled workers, this shift in management style is currently not being applied to TMAU

The experiences of employees with TMAU also highlight the limits of present-day definitions of worker solidarity. The US, for instance, has entered a period of remarkable labor activism, with employees in several industries forming unions to push back against low wages and exploitative working conditions; public approval of labor unions is at a record high of 71%. As long as TMAU and related conditions remain invisible within social justice movements, however, employees like the ones discussed here will continue to discover that calls to respect and honor workers’ dignity reference only those who conform to the ableist norm of odorless embodiment.