At a local corporation I won't name, the restrooms are literally a thing of beauty. The stalls shimmer. The porcelain gleams. The row of wash basins radiate a flashy luster. The scent of lilies wafts through the air.

The place is filthy.

In office bathrooms everywhere, beauty can be beastly. If a company restroom smells of perfume, does that mean it's really clean? No, of course not. The proliferation of toilet spices, bowl seltzers, wonder wicks and air fresheners are designed to mislead and misdirect.

If this month's issue of Cincy Business is any benchmark, we care about where we work. Yes, the bricks and mortar, the image conveyed in our office appearance"”from lobby to cubicles to, yes, the toilet"”matters. But perhaps, just perhaps, in our rush to spruce up our corporate suites as "brands," we overlook one tiny thing. Bacteria and germs still exist. We haven't gotten rid of them by plastering every surface with fragrances.

If you peruse such fascinating publications as Building Services Management Magazine or ICS Cleaning Specialist, you learn that the source of bacteria might well not be evident to the human eye (the experts suggest you try sweeping a flashlight loaded with a black light bulb around to get a true indicator"”the black light highlights any yucky residue).

Bathrooms aren't the only culprits that contribute to lost productivity due to sick time. Any surface routinely touched by the human hand can convey germs. Studies show the No. 1 most unsanitary portion of any office is the doorknobs, followed by telephone receiver, light switch, the arms of chairs, the dispenser button on the water cooler, and the handle on the office fridge.

These hot zones rarely smell bad"”when's the last time you complained that the door knob or phone cradle stunk?"”but they're nonetheless the likeliest candidates to infect you.

Just ask Ed Offshack, the chemical engineer with Procter & Gamble wh'™s in charge of perfecting formulas for the company's line of commercial cleaners.

"What's important is to avoid product fragrances that are simply a cover-up," notes Offshack. "There are many products out there that are simply diluted perfumes that try to confuse the nose by adding fragrance. They may make it hard for people to identify the root cause of the bad odor, but they will still be left knowing that the scent in the room, the environment, isn't right."

Offshack notes that cover-up cleaning products so favored by some companies are frequently very inexpensive products; you can equate it with slapping on cheap French perfume. "These products are not going to fix the problem or satisfy the people who have to use the space," he observes. "Whether they are occupants in an office tower or visitors to a public space, practicing those kind of procedures will cause complaints."

As tighter building construction reduces air movement in our office highrises, the issue of shared germs and nose-crinkling scents is coming to a head.

Random use and irregular combinations of scented cleaning products are creating new unpleasant odors and even chemical hazards, warns Offshack. "People will still be able to identify that something isn't right in the space. They will know it's a floral scent, but it's not a pleasant floral scent."

Whether it's the odor of cinnamon or apple or roses, Offshack is campaigning against it. "Anything characteristically identifiable, be it orange or lemon citrus or vanilla, will polarize the people who use the building space. This is very different from the home. People who live in a home will use very specific scents, the pine oil scent or lemon or lilac for instance, because they can pick the product. But (in a company setting), you can't know the scent preference of those people. And you'll never find agreement."

That's the one piece of common scents we can all agree upon: CEOs might do well to outright ban the use of fragrance to cover up the odors created by bacteria. Instead, just deal head-on with eliminating the germs in the spaces where we work, and you'll have a workforce not constantly cashing in on their sick time.