Pets in the Workplace: Is it Right for Your Company?

Among the growing number of pro-pet workplaces are Google, Amazon, Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, Bissell, and Petco. Not only are these internationally known employers inviting employees’ furry friends to work, but also lesser-known and smaller companies are doing it (including wineries and dental offices.) Some companies even provide pet insurance for their workers’ barking buddies!

No one is suggesting, however, that because “everybody is doing it, your company should be doing it too.” As with any business decision, you want to think strategically before implementing a pet-friendly policy. Consider the potential benefits and risks of Spot trotting around the halls of your company.

The Benefits Can Increase Worker Morale (and your bottom line)

Health: A 2012 study by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels during the workday. Lower stress levels are linked to decreases in heart disease. Healthwise, it’s also well known that pet owners have better moods as well as faster recovery times from illnesses and surgeries. At work, these positive outcomes translate into less absenteeism and higher morale.

Cooperation & Productivity: When your puppy peers sweetly at your colleague, she will be drawn to your cubicle to cuddle with Fluffy. The 2012 VCU study reported that such experiences facilitate communication among employees, even between employees who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. Positive communication among co-workers yields greater cooperation and productivity.

Workplace Culture: Employees tend to view pet-friendly workplaces as “cool.” These work environments often have a laid-back character, where professionals do serious work, yet feel at ease. An atmosphere where an employer maintains high expectations but gives employees latitude with their pets generates trust and respect between employer and employee. Also, clients or customers may be drawn to pet-friendly companies because they enjoy interacting with animals when they do business.

Hiring & Retention: A survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association indicates that almost 25% of employees think employers should allow pets in the workplace. According to the VCU study, in pet-friendly workplaces, employees maintained a higher level of job satisfaction. Thus, Dorothy and her dog Toto may be more likely to seek out and remain at a pro-pet job.

. . . Yet There Are Risks, Too

Non-Pet Lovers & Fear of Animals: Not every person is a pet-lover, and some are genuinely afraid of certain animals. An employee may find co-workers’ pets distracting, downright irritating or sincerely frightening. Therefore, a pet-friendly policy might generate discontent or stress in valued employees and may ward off talented new hires.

Pet-Practical Industry or Workspace: Not all industries or workspaces are conducive to pro-pet policies. For example, a medical facility may be required to maintain a sterile environment, so pets may be impractical or legally prohibited. Although your industry might be conducive to pets, the workspace may not be large enough. Pets should have safe place to stay, an area to exercise, and room to remain at an appropriate distance from non-pet lovers and pet allergy sufferers.

Allergies: According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, 15% to 30% of Americans have some form of pet allergy. Allergic reactions range from rashes to serious respiratory disorders. So it’s no surprise that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an animal allergy can be a disability. Failing to take pet allergies seriously could be grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.

Other Legal Issues: Employers should be aware that both predictable and unforeseen legal issues could arise from a pro-pet policy. For instance, there may be federal or state statutes and municipal codes or lease agreements that prohibit pets in your workspace. Additionally, even where all parties have tried to abide by workplace policies, accidents happen. Suits for property damage and personal injury are certainly possible. You don’t want to get sued if playful Cujo unwittingly bites an employee or customer. You also don’t want to be liable if Fido gnaws through a misplaced electrical cord and burns the building down.

So What Should You Do? Weighing the Benefits and Risks

As your company weighs the benefits and risks of creating a pet-friendly workplace, consider all the avenues for mitigating risks. Consult a human resource specialist and an employment attorney to help draft, implement and train employees on your pet-friendly policy. Talk with an insurance agent about available pet insurance policies. After a policy is in place and employees are trained, do a six-month trial period to assess if a pro-pet workplace is right for your company.

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