Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of Take Your Dog to Work Day (TYDTW), the event that really launched the era of pet-friendly workplace policies.
Back in 1999, Pet Sitters International had this out-of-the-box notion: What if we created an event “to celebrate the great companions dogs make and promote their adoptions” by encouraging employers “to experience the joys of pets in the workplace for one day to support their local pet communities?”
PSI estimates that only about 300 businesses participated in the inaugural TYDTW Day, but since then, pet-friendly policies have proliferated and have now reached a point where the number of companies that allow pets in the workplace has grown to 8%, according to SHRM’s 2017 Employee Benefits Report.
An effective tool for improving recruitment and morale
A story last year in HR Magazine puts it more succinctly:
“As organizations look to provide perks that will attract and retain key talent, many are coming to realize that offering pet-friendly benefits — whether that means take-your-dog-to-work days, pet insurance or animal-related volunteer excursions — can be an effective tool for improving recruitment, morale and even wellness.”
Yes, if you look at some of the research — like this 2016 Banfield Pet Hospital study on the positive impact of pets in the workplace — you’ll see that all sorts of good things can be attributed to having pets in the workplace.
What kind of things? Well, the Banfield study mentions stuff like greater loyalty to the company (aka, employee engagement), a better sense of well being, reduced stress, increased productivity, and the ability to work longer hours.
What company wouldn’t want employees with more of that? And if it takes some pets in the workplace to do it, isn’t that a small price to pay for it?
That’s the way a lot of people look at it, but there’s another side to the pet friendly-policies, and it’s this: When you have pets in the workplace you also have a whole raft of liability and legal issues that someone (usually HR and senior management) needs to worry about.
Would you allow a “take your snake to work” day?
Attorney Karen Elliott of the law firm Eckert Seamans in Richmond, Virginia says it’s important for managers, HR pros and employees to understand the difference between the rules governing allowing dogs in the workplace under the ADA public access rules vs the ADA workplace accommodation rules.
“Rules governing dogs in the workplace are very different,” she said. “There are numerous things to consider before officially recognizing “take your dog to work day” including the building lease, the impact on other employees, and whether or not other employees will demand “take your snake to work day” and a variety of other issues.
When I asked her what companies need to consider before officially recognizing “take your dog to work day,” the list of issues she detailed was enough to make a CHRO’s head hurt. She listed these:
Lease requirements – Does your lease prohibit dogs/other animals?
Insurance policies – Yours may not cover dog bites, especially if not allowed by lease.
Why are you giving special consideration to dogs vs cats, snakes, ferrets, or other animals?
Will you allow all dog breeds? What about pit bulls or other more aggressive type of breeds? Will you limit dogs by size?
What about doggie breaks? If they are short, you must pay the employees, but those breaks may be more frequent than human breaks.
Make sure that in limiting the breeds, the limitation does not have a disparate impact against protected categories of individuals in the workplace.
What about legitimate fears and allergies?
What do you do if the dog destroys property?
How will you deal with disorderly dogs?
What about if a dog trips someone up in the workplace? How do you control all of the dogs and/or limit who gets to bring their dog?
Yikes! Those are just the possible concerns she quickly detailed in answering my question. I’m sure there are others if I gave her a little more time to dig into it.
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Let us be the wind beneath your wings
And when I asked attorney Elliott how much concern management should have about employees who object to “take your dog to work day” — for example, employees who have allergies or other health issues around dogs, or employees who may be scared of dogs and worry about being bitten — she was direct and specific:
“(Management) should be very concerned, she said, (because) it looks like the employer is discarding legitimate health concerns and legitimate fears in favor of something ‘whimsical.’ In some instances, the employer may be violating the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) by ignoring the legitimate physical and mental health issues of other employees.”
OK, what does this attorney from Eckert Seamans REALLY think about have dogs or other pets in the workplace?:
“I personally love dogs! But as a lawyer who helps employers with workplace liability, it is difficult to see the upside for the employer when taking into consideration all of the potential workplace issues – but in particular – why should an employer discriminate in favor of dogs against all other pets?”
It’s a good question, and as someone who has dealt with pets in the workplace, I can see what she’s talking about.
Dealing with what dogs do
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — San Francisco circa 1999-2000 — I was a vice president at Pets.com. We had a pet-friendly policy, and we actually owned the right to Take Your Dog to Work Day for about a year or so before we closed and sold the rights back to Pet Sitters International.
In other words, we had dogs and a few other pets (a couple of cats, a bird, and some fish) hanging around the office all day, every day. We did have issues with the dogs, but never of the type that attorney Elliott detailed. No, our pet issues at Pets.com were more basic — like dogs crapping all over the office.
One dog named Bailey, a sweet, 10-year-old Labrador Retriever, pretty much had the run of the office along with her 3-year-old puppy Remy. They were both wonderful dogs. but they had the bad habit of crapping right in front of the walkway into the CEO’s cubical.
The dogs belonged to one of our other VPs. I remember a great many occasions when the CEO would encounter what one of the dogs had left her, and then yell loud enough for everyone to hear, “Sue Ann, get over here and clean up after your dog!”
It’s a minor problem, I know, but how many managers today really want to be dealing with crap (sorry!) like that?
I’m all for all the good things that pet friendly-policies can bring, but as the law of unintended consequences teaches us, some of the outcomes of a purposeful action are NOT ones foreseen and intended.
So it is with pet friendly-policies and Take Your Dog to Work Day. Pets are important and can do things to make employees happier and improve morale, but as with all things in life, there are trade offs.
The question for HR and senior management is this: Is the positive benefit of a pet-friendly-policy and dogs in the office worth the extra management time and energy you have to expend on it?
It’s a good question — and it’s why your CHRO gets paid the big bucks to deal with it.