“Pointers” On Pet-Friendly Workplace Policies
Allowing pets in the workplace (and many other places) is a growing trend in Canada. When the author first visited the head office of Amazon in Seattle some 15 years ago, he initially thought he had the wrong address given the large number of employees coming and going in the lobby with their dogs. Led by tech employers such as Amazon, more and more employers are allowing pets in their workplaces. With the spread of working from home and expansion in pet ownership during COVID, and now the focus on getting employees back together in the office, offering to allow pets can be a way to soften the transition for pet owners. This article “strays” (all puns intended) from strictly “bare bones” legal considerations to summarize the legal framework around pets in the workplace and discusses the pros and cons of a pet-friendly workplace. The final section offers “pointers” on introducing a pets-in-the-workplace policy.
The Legal Framework
Broadly speaking, employers have a broad discretion to allow or prohibit pets in the workplace. The only exception is for employees who can show that they need a “service animal” with them. While originally this covered service dogs for the vision-impaired, many employees have sought to have doctors designate their (mostly untrained) pets as a “service animal” to support their mental health. Airlines and employers have been flooded with claims that various animals are “service animals.” Under human rights legislation, an employee who can show being accompanied by a service animal is bona fide medically necessary will be entitled to bring the animal to work, unless to do so would be illegal for other reasons (see below) or would constitute an “undue hardship” for the employer. What constitutes “undue hardship” is not clearly defined but could include allergic reactions of other employees in the same workspace or lease terms prohibiting pets through to the “service animal” biting employees.
In the following discussion, we will focus on the pros and cons of allowing pets in the workplace for the broader workforce. Before even considering allowing pets in the workplace, employers must ensure having pets in the workplace is legally permissible by confirming:
- Their lease or landlord’s policies do not ban pets.
- Their business is not subject to safety rules or concerns or sanitation regulations, which either prohibit pets or just make the safety risks (to pets and employees) too high.
The “Pawsitives” of a Pet-Friendly Workplace
It is no secret that the already high rate of pet ownership in Canada has jumped over COVID, with dogs representing most of those new pets. Many modern pet owners treat their pet like a family member and incur substantial “pet sitting” or dog-walking costs if they are not at home. They (and their pets) have enjoyed working from home as it allows them to spend more time with their pet and save on pet sitting. Employers who offer pet-friendly workplaces are therefore targeting a wide section of the workforce. Surveys confirm that allowing an employee to bring their pet to work can help attract and retain pet lovers. Since most employers still do not allow pets, this can really differentiate your business from rival employers, particularly if you want employees in the office more.
Other studies show that, broadly speaking, allowing pets in the workplace can:
- Improve overall staff morale as coworkers enjoy the pets.
- Act as an “ice-breaker” for interaction between coworkers, building team spirit.
- Act as an antidote to stress and burnout for owners and coworkers alike. According to experiments, the mere presence of pets is calming in stressful situations.
Some of the cons can cancel out the pros above:
- Some employees may be fearful of dogs or other pets, even well-behaved ones, and thus be stressed out and more likely to object or quit or stay home if pets are in their workplace.
- A significant portion of the workforce is allergic to some degree to dogs and cats. These employees will be unhappy if the presence of pets imposes discomfort on them. Legally, employers would have to address this health concern, which, one should assume, outweighs the happiness of pets and their owners.
To mitigate these concerns (and make sure you are not “barking up the wrong tree”), employers should conduct a pre-pet-policy survey to identify such problems and consider retaining an attractive pet-free area in the workplace for employees who do not want to be around pets.
Employers whose clients and service providers visit their workplace will also need to consider if any would have allergic reactions, safety concerns or just not appreciate pets being present.
Pets, particularly active or needy ones, can also be a distraction from work and pet owners may abuse the presence of a pet to take extended breaks. This can be addressed in a policy that screens for problem pets, however.
Other “cons” are more legal liability focused:
- As the employer allowing pets into the workplace, you would likely share liability with the pet owner if the pet injures an employee or other person or causes damage to property. While it would seem likely that WorkSafe legislation would bar an injured employee from suing over pet-caused injuries at work, an injured customer or supplier would be able to sue. You may need to check your insurance for coverage for this risk.
- Badly trained or unhappy pets can cause damage to your premises, including through unforeseen “accidents.”
- With multiple pets comes the risk they will not get along and engage in fights or dangerous or noisy “dog play,” leading to possible claims by owners of injured pets. Yes, this happens in dog parks every day.
Steps to Implementing a Successful Pets-in-the-Workplace Policy
We suggest employers undertake a confidential initial survey of employees to determine:
- The extent of interest in bringing pets to work and information about what pets employees want to bring (i.e. pythons versus poodles). Obviously, if a significant number do not express interest, it is not worth proceeding further. If large numbers are interested, you will likely need to plan to limit the numbers each day.
- For those interested, how often they would like to bring their pet to work and how they would propose to look after them.
- Whether any employees have pet allergies (or other medical issues with pets) or other concerns or objections and if so, to what pets.
Assuming the employer wants to proceed with pets, a policy and companion application form with agreement should be developed. Some points the policy should cover include:
- Specifying which pets are allowed: employers have the right to limit which kinds of pets are allowed at work.
- Stating the employer retains a broad discretion to refuse, limit or withdraw pet privileges (other than for employees who need to bring a service animal) for any reason, including but not limited to dangerous, disruptive, unsafe or unsanitary behaviour.
- Mentioning the need to balance the rights of employees who fear or are allergic to pets.
- Stipulate that the pet owner accept full supervisory, toileting and financial liability in writing as a condition of bringing their pet to work.
- Limits on breaks and time off work to attend to a pet.
- Requiring the pet owner prove, as a condition of being considered under the policy, that their pet has all required vaccinations, is properly toilet and obedience trained (for dogs at least; cats not so much), can lie quiet for long periods and has no history of ignoring commands or attacking people or other pets.
- Noting successful applicants must sign an agreement accepting full responsibility for their pet at all times, as well as confirming they meet the eligibility criteria.
It is also prudent to allow each new pet on a trial basis for a few days to confirm they are suitable for the workplace. Some pets simply do not want to leave their home or become fearful or agitated when others, even friendly coworkers, are present (despite what their owners may claim or hope).
With these tips, employers should be able to assess whether a pets-in-the-workplace policy is feasible and then successfully introduce it. Such a policy will almost certainly facilitate recruitment, retention and overall job satisfaction among the large numbers of pet owning and loving employees out there.
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