HR Hero Line

Pets in the Office

(Updated April 15, 2009)

by Hillary J. Collyer

Hillary Collyer and LadyWith all the recent press about America’s new first dog, Bo Obama, we thought it would be timely to address the issue of pets in the workplace — after all, the White House isn’t just the country’s most famous residence, it’s also a workplace.

According to the U.S. Humane Society, there are approximately 65 million dogs in 39 percent of U.S. households. With such a high number of furry friends in our homes, it’s hardly surprising that taking our dogs to work has become a growing trend. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), nearly one in five U.S. companies allows pets at work.

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Benefits of pets in workplace
At a time when there is an increased emphasis on balancing work-life issues, establishing a pet-friendly policy is one way for employers to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. Small to medium-sized businesses, particularly technology firms and creative agencies, have been the most receptive to allowing dogs at work. This is due in part to the fact that the fewer employees you have, the easier it is to reach a consensus on an appropriate workplace policy.

Dog-friendly workplace policies can improve staff morale and camaraderie and encourage employees to work longer hours (since they don’t have to rush home to let their dogs out at the end of the day). Also, a company with a dog-friendly policy will be more attractive to a dog lover. The APPMA survey indicated that having pets in the workplace offers a number of benefits, such as creating a more productive work environment, lowering stress and anxiety, improving overall emotional and physical health, decreasing employee absenteeism, and making employees more willing to work overtime. About now would probably be a good time for me to insert a disclaimer that I am somewhat biased in regard to this issue — I’ve been bringing my 11- year-old Lhasa apso to the office for the past several years. (The picture with this article is of us in my office.) Hence, I can personally attest to the decreased stress and anxiety as a result of the presence of my dog in the office.

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Downside of pet-friendly workplaces
There can, of course, be issues with allowing employees to bring their pets to work. The most common complaint against allowing pets in the workplace is allergies. Although this is not an area presently fraught with litigation, employers that adopt pet-friendly policies should be mindful of potential legal actions by employees with allergies.

In one case in Pennsylvania, an employee sued her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the employer failed to accommodate her allergies. The employer was an assisted-living facility that housed two dogs and several cats during her employment.

The court dismissed the employee’s claim, concluding that her allergy to cats and dogs didn’t qualify as a disability under the ADA. Relevant to the court’s holding were the facts that there was no evidence that the employee’s physical reaction to the animals was so debilitating that it limited any major life activity and that her use of an inhaler and injections decreased any limitation allergies placed on her breathing.

However, the outcome of the Pennsylvania case might be different now, with Congress’ recent enactment of the ADA Amendments Act. Under the new Act, a person’s use of mitigating measures such as medication is not taken into consideration in determining whether a medical condition is substantially limiting. Thus, the Pennsylvania employee might be disabled under the ADA Amendments Act if without using an inhaler and injections she would have substantial difficulty breathing.

Some employers have sought to accommodate both dog owners and allergic employees by having separate work areas. Others have adopted leash rules that restrict dogs from roaming into the allergic employee’s work area. Also, employers have prohibited dogs from cafeterias, break rooms, restrooms, and conference rooms.

Another potential problem is people who are afraid or uncomfortable around dogs or cats. In a recent case out of New Jersey, a former mail room clerk of Foodarama Supermarkets brought an Americans with Disabilities Act claim in which she alleged that her former supervisor occasionally brought his house cats to his Foodarama office, despite the fact that the employee had previously informed him of her “cat-phobia.”

On occasions when he brought his cats to the office, the supervisor instructed the employee to remain in the mail room to avoid a “feline encounter.” The employee was absent from work for at least a week allegedly because of illness related to her cat-phobia. After being terminated, the employee filed a lawsuit complaining that Foodarama had failed to accommodate her cat-phobia, which she characterized as a “disability,” and terminated her in retaliation for her repeated complaints regarding cats in the workplace.

Because the court determined that the employee’s claim must be dismissed because she had failed to timely file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the court did not reach the question of whether cat-phobia constitutes a cognizable disability under the ADA. However, the court did indicate that it found the employee’s position to be tenuous at best.

In addition to helping alleviate concerns about employees with allergies, implementing a leash rule can also help diminish the concerns of people who are uncomfortable around or afraid of animals.

As indicated, there are not a lot of reported cases dealing with the issue of pets in the workplace. Usually when there is litigation surrounding animals in a workplace, such cases involve the presence of service animals. Employers should be mindful of the important distinction between service animals and pets — service animals enjoy special privileges under the law not afforded pets.

Staying out of the doghouse
Before instituting a pet-friendly workplace, employers should first develop a workplace pet policy that realistically fits its work environment. Relevant considerations include whether pets will be allowed every day or perhaps just one day a week. Another issue is to address how many pets to allow in the office.

Pet-friendly policies vary from company to company, but most include several basic components:

  • accommodating the needs of employees who have allergies or are afraid of animals (e.g., setting aside pet-free areas such as cafeterias, conference rooms, and restrooms);
  • requiring that pets be kept on a leash or restricted to an office, cubicle, or crate;
  • requiring that pets be housebroken; and
  • requiring employees to clean up after their pets — both inside and outside.

Other possible provisions include requiring pets to be properly groomed and treated with a flea preventative.

Only well-behaved pets that are comfortable and reliably safe around strangers should be allowed in the workplace. They shouldn’t show any aggressive traits, such as growling, snarling, or biting, toward people or other animals. Even well-behaved dogs might not like mail or delivery persons, so it’s a good idea to have dogs on a leash or restricted to an office or cubicle. Dogs also should have a water bowl and chew toys to keep them occupied — however, loud squeaky toys or other items that might distract or annoy coworkers should be avoided.

A pet-friendly workplace isn’t appropriate for all employers. If such a policy is well suited for your company, though, this is one minimally costly way to make your employees happy and perhaps more productive. Take a realistic look at your work environment, and if you think a pet-friendly policy is a good fit, implement a policy that keeps the health, safety, and happiness of your employees and their furry friends in mind.

Check out Hillary’s review of a new book by the U.S. Humane Society on creating dog-friendly workplaces