HR Hero Line

Collies in the cubicles? Exploring pros and cons of pets at work

Who couldn’t use a cute, cuddly friend at work? One that’s not the least bit judgmental, one that is loyal and devoted, one whose main goal in life is to build you up when the pressures of work get you down. If only your dog could go with you to work. 

A number of companies make that option possible. Pet-friendly policies make a great perk for animal lovers, but not so much for coworkers who aren’t so enamored of dogs, cats, and other pets. Some people have allergies to contend with, others are fearful of animals, and others see even the most docile pets as distracting or annoying.

Of course, sometimes allowing an animal to accompany an employee isn’t just a perk to add a little fun to the workplace. An employer may be obligated to at least consider allowing an employee with a disability to bring a specially trained service animal to the workplace as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even if an employee’s animal isn’t specially trained and recognized as a bona fide service animal, it may be considered an emotional support animal and, as such, also may be deemed a reasonable accommodation to help an employee with a disability perform the essential functions of a job.

Understanding the law
Erica E. Flores, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield, Massachusetts, says when considering animals in the workplace, employers need to understand the ADA as well as state and local laws that may govern animal control generally or in the workplace specifically. And she stresses that pets are much different from service animals.

Also, Flores points out that the ADA doesn’t automatically require an employer to allow an animal as an accommodation. Rather, the law requires that employers enter into the interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation that will enable an employee with a disability to work. She says the employee needs to demonstrate to the employer that the presence of the animal will enable the employee to do the job.

Then the employer “needs to do a balancing test,” Flores says to make sure the accommodation won’t impose an undue hardship on the business. If the potential consequence of having an animal in the workplace outweighs the benefit to the employee, the employer is justified in saying no.

Emotional support animals, as opposed to service animals, constitute “a bit of a new development,” Flores says. Unlike a service animal that has been formally trained to perform tasks for or assist someone with a disability, an emotional support animal may have little or no formal training.

An employer may be skeptical that such an animal should be considered a legitimate accommodation, but Flores says employers are wise to “put that skepticism on the back burner and look at it with an open mind.” The employer dealing with a possible ADA issue needs to listen to the employee before turning down the request.

“I think the law is fairly clear that even if the animal is not providing a physical task, emotional support can still be considered a reasonable accommodation under the law,” Flores says.

Just for fun?
But many times employers allow pets for morale purposes, not because of any legal obligation. Google is famously dog friendly, as are a number of other employers. The newsletter The Bark in March published a directory of dog-friendly companies that includes employers as varied at Amazon, Ben & Jerry’s, Build-A-Bear Workshop, online retailer Etsy, and gaming company Zynga.

Many dog-friendly employers provide perks for their canine compadres. The Bark’s list says Zynga pays a portion of pet insurance, offers a rooftop play area, and hosts a professional photo shoot on annual Puppy Love day. Some other employers on the list also offer pet insurance as well as treats and play areas.

But is having a pet at work a stress reliever that leads to greater productivity, or does the distraction and potential liability outweigh the benefit? A 2012 study suggests that dogs may well alleviate work stress. The preliminary study published in the March 2012 issue of International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that dogs offered at least some relief from stress during the workday for their owners and made the job more satisfying for others in the office as well.

“Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations and may enhance organizational satisfaction and perceptions of support,” Randolph T. Barker, principal investigator of the study, said after findings were published in 2012. “Of course, it is important to have policies in place to ensure only friendly, clean, and well-behaved pets are present in the workplace.”

Barker, who was a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University at the time of the study, noted that further research would be needed to replicate findings of the preliminary study.

In spite of possible advantages to having dogs at work, Flores says she can’t recommend the practice. Dog bites present a major liability even if the dog is provoked. She also points out that some work settings aren’t conducive to pets.

Employers considering allowing pets in the workplace should insist that employees be in compliance with all state and local laws that apply to pets, including proper licensing and up-to-date vaccinations, Flores says, adding that employers may want to consider banning certain dog breeds particularly if they are excluded from their insurer’s liability coverage.

At a minimum, Flores says she would recommend “some kind of vetting process” to make sure a dog is docile and house trained. Other policy pointers include prohibiting dogs in heat and reserving the right to kick out a pet after one strike if trouble occurs. Some kind of written release of liability might be advisable, too, she says, although it might be a challenge to write one that would be enforceable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *