Sweet scent of success: pheromones in the workplace

My first “real” job was at a downtown Chicago law firm, where I worked as a client service assistant. It was a relatively cushy gig; I had my own desk, a nice boss, decent pay, and a fun flirtation going on with one of the associates. There was just one small problem: Frank.

I often had hours of filing to do, and the filing system was housed in Frank’s small, windowless office. Frank and I got along just fine, and he mostly left me alone as I worked. But I still dreaded filing, because—and there’s no sensitive way to put this—Frank’s smell made me nauseous.

It wasn’t his cologne, but the underlying odor that turned my stomach. He didn’t smell bad, exactly; it was simply that his natural “eau” was jarring to my olfactory system. I couldn’t remedy the situation, because how do you broach that subject with someone? “Um, Frank . . . I don’t like the way you smell. Can you do something about that, please?” Somehow, I don’t think that would have gone over too well, and Frank was technically my superior. I was stuck with the stench.

Pheromonology . . . fact or fiction?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was most likely reacting to Frank’s pheromones. Wikipedia defines pheromones as “a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual.” In lay(woman)’s terms, these are scents that we emit naturally which some believe are the key to attraction. Just like hormones affect our own moods, pheromones affect the moods of others. Ever been in a “just friends” situation with a guy who, at least on paper, would make the perfect boyfriend? If you wanted to be attracted to him, but the spark just wasn’t there, blame pheromones. Even in the professional world, we sometimes rub people the wrong way, no matter how hard we try to make them like us. It could be that our trademark, natural scent is offensive to them on an unconscious level.

Of course, we can always douse ourselves in perfume to mask our natural pheromone odor, but that can cause other problems. Many workplaces are going scent-free, provoked by a number of lawsuits over ”environmental allergies” in the office due to the scents used by coworkers. “People often wear perfume or cologne to make them feel good about themselves, and the decision to wear it should be their own,” explains writer Jennifer Streeter in a Suite 101 article on perfume in the workplace. “But, they must be considerate of their coworkers and understand that what smells pleasant to them may be offensive to others.” This is an important point—even if you love the smell of Viva La Juicy, your boss may hate it. Skincare magnate Dr. Perricone claims on his website that “olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, considered to be the seat of emotion . . . The limbic system is a kind of “mini-brain” that largely controls emotions and behavior, influences our feelings ranging from happiness to misery and love to hate.” For all you know, your boss’s ex-wife could have been a fan of the same perfume; maybe the scent evokes negative memories. Allergies to perfume notwithstanding, people have extreme reactions to scent, and your choice of cologne can have more of an impact than you might think.

Unfortunately, even if you scrub yourself with unscented Ivory soap and wear 100% cotton clothing, you’re still going to be giving off a trademark smell, thanks to your own unique mix of bodily chemicals. This could be to your benefit or detriment, depending. The science behind pheromones is shaky; it’s hard to separate the unfounded claims of those hawking synthetic “pheromone colognes” online from the real research. Still, National Geographic reported that squid react aggressively when exposed to a specific pheromone belonging to a family of proteins also found in humans. If this particular pheromone can make a squid get all aggro, couldn’t it feasibly do the same to a human? This would have interesting applications in the business world; if we could bottle that pheromone, it might help women in male-dominant business environments hold their own. On the other end of the spectrum, pheromones that provoke feelings of comfort and attraction could be particularly useful to those in sales or marketing.

Is smell the most aggressive sense?

“I worked with this woman who practically oozed confidence from her pores,” says Lindsay, who works in pharmaceutical sales. “She wasn’t particularly pretty, which is usually a requirement in our industry—and I’d even go so far as to say she dressed kind of dowdy. And yet she could sell a prospect on anything. She was one of the highest-ranking reps at our company. I could never figure it out, but I definitely sensed she had an aura of success about her. I have no idea if it was pheromones, but whatever it was, I wish I could get some of it!”

If the hawkers of synthetic pheromones are to be believed, Lindsay’s wish could be fulfilled. “The natural world has a simple way to attract animals for mating. Through Scientific Research, we are able to extract active ingredients that use the sense of smell to attract people. Pheromones are the natural answer to mating calls in animals. It could be your answer to attracting customers to your business!” promises one sketchy-looking pheromone distributor’s website. But before you pull out the credit card, take heed: as one online article on the reality of human pheromones cautions, the evidence is mixed. And even if they do exist, the author says, “With our highly developed intellect and rich compliment of emotions, ambitions, motivations and desires, it may not be profitable to look at human pheromones the same way we look at animal pheromones. Instead of looking for odorants that cause a definite physiological response, it may behoove us to look at how possible pheromones affect our attitudes. We are not machines that blindly fall into some stereotyped behavior in response to an odor, but we may be machines that are nudged towards a type of behavior by pheromones in concert with our higher intellect.”

Research assistant Jessica tells me about a project she worked on which used pheromones to decrease the pest population in fruit crops. The researchers hung sticky traps in orchards, filled with pheromone “lures”. The male insects were drawn to the traps, thinking they were female moths—so not only was the pest population decreased (since you can’t mate with a pheromone-doused sticky trap, no matter how hard you try) but most of the male insects were also trapped and destroyed. “My job was to count those stupid moths and change the sticky trap bottoms. Awesome, right? But it did make me think . . . these pests met their demise by searching for the source of (synthetic) pheromone they presumed would lead them to a female to mate. Why couldn’t this have human applications too?”

Jessica wasn’t sure there would be professional benefits to using pheromones, as much as personal/romantic ones (although she did have sympathy for “poor, male moths . . . and poor male colleagues that get suckered into chasing after pheromones on the job, real or synthetic . . .”). Still, if pheromones could conquer pests in the fields, maybe they could also conquer “pests” in your field. Think how valuable it would be to wear a scent which made that nosy colleague butt out of your business, or forced an overly-critical partner to turn his aggression elsewhere?

Unfortunately, pheromone science simply isn’t there yet. Rather than worrying too much about your pheromones, it might be better to focus on something you do have control over—your own sense of confidence and attractiveness. Aromatherapy may be a better olfactory science to consider, since we know that specific scents can affect our moods. Peppermint, for example, can make you feel more alert and positive; cinnamon inspires feelings of comfort and affection.

This doesn’t mean you need to douse yourself to the point of smelling like a stick of Trident gum in order to reap the benefits—just take a whiff of a scent that makes you feel positive before heading into a meeting, or dab a little essential oil onto your wrists or temples. If a particular perfume makes you feel more attractive or powerful, then that works too; however, keep in mind that scent is a very individual thing, as we discussed earlier. Jenna learned that the hard way. “I love, love, love the smell of Calvin Klein ‘One’,” she says. “So I used to wear it every time I had an important meeting. It brought me back to my college glory days—the time in my life I felt like I could do no wrong. And it’s not like I bathed in the stuff; I wore an appropriate amount.” Even so, Jenna was called into Human Resources one afternoon regarding her choice of scent. “Turns out a coworker had complained that I was making the office smell like a high school dance. I’ve never been more mortified.”

Take-away lesson?

Leave the heavy perfumes at home and use the evocative power of smell to improve your own mood and confidence. The positivity you project will make a far better (and less toxic) impression than a synthetic scent. As for pheromones . . . well, you can’t really control how others react to your individual olfactory aura, so it’s probably not worrying about.

Unless, of course, you’re Frank, and I’m stuck filing in your office. In that case, do something about it, will you?

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1 Comment

  1. I think every once in a while people do experience pheromones in the work place and they don’t even know it. That is what makes the aspect of pheromones so interesting when it comes to the chemistry of relationships.

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