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All Bark and No Bite: How Company Policies Allowing Employees to Have Pets at Work Often Fail

We adore our pets. Actually, we adore our pets to the point where many corporations currently allow pets in the workplace on a regular basis as a benefit for their employees. For instance, Petsmart has a "take your pet to work" day. Amazon has installed "doggie drinking fountains" for its employees' pets. Google even offers special dispensation for employees who bring their pets to work. Pets, especially dogs, are now seen as an integral means of making employees more productive, increased employee retention, and by providing employers with a low-cost way to boost morale.  It is believed that more corporations will create programs for employees with pets. While it is widely known that pets can create worker tranquility and productivity sometimes the exact opposite is the case. Much as we might love them, pets can also cause disruption, chaos, and discord among employees particularly when they arrive come in large numbers. As your employees' clamor for the opportunity to bring their pets to the workplace, here are just some of the legal and practical issues you absolutely must consider in advance before you open the door to this possibility: 

1. Dog Bites. This is the most serious and fundamental issue for businesses when deciding whether to permit pets in the workplace. Ordinarily, a dog owner outside of the workplace would, in most cases, be liable if his dog were to bite someone. When you allow pets into the workplace, a business is now inviting potential joint liability with an employee-owner in a later personal injury lawsuit. In Connecticut, for example, courts have not applied strict liability to employers who allow pets at their place of business but have concluded that claims for negligence can be maintained against employers, particularly if they have the knowledge or should have knowledge that a particular pet has a vicious propensity. Having said this, employers need to be wary of different breeds and the tendencies of each breed. In Massachusetts, our appellate courts have categorized "pit bulls" and other like breeds as inherently dangerous.

2. Property Damage. Dogs are both destructive at home and in the workplace. Property damage by pets in the workplace has been known to range from destroying important corporate data to physical damage, involving carpets and other common areas.

3. Landlord Issues. If you lease your business premises any decision to bring pets into the workplace is likely to violate the terms and provisions of your lease

4. Disability Requests. Where you have pets, you have allergies in many instances. As we know, both asthma and allergies are caused and/or aggravated by the presence of pets. As an employer, you are expected to make reasonable accommodations to any employee who makes a request for accommodation based on asthma or allergies otherwise your business may find itself facing an ADA violation. As to the issue of allowing service dogs or emotional support dogs in the workplace, this will be examined in a later article.

Now that we have outlined some of the potential hazards involved here is a checklist of things you must do if your company decides to introduce pets into the workplace:

5. Make sure that your handbook, manual or other written materials specifically delineate corporate policy covering pets in the workplace. Having said this, and in order to maintain uniform standards of enforcement, the policies should have a provision that allows the employer to disallow an employee's pet if it causes damage on more than three occasions, for example.

6. Have employees in different departments bring their own pets to work on certain designated days and for certain designated times. 

7. Offer pet-sitting services either on-site or off-site to assist in caring for and managing these animals if and when necessary.

8. Make sure that you figure out, in the first instance, just how many pets will be brought into the workplace. This can be accomplished by sending a memo to employees who might be interested in participating in such a program. Remember, this is not a "one size fits all" kind of situation. Every company is different and each has its own brand, culture, and way of conducting business that must be considered when opening the door to allowing pets into the workplace.

9. If you lease your corporate workspace, make sure that you get written permission from your lessor before allowing pets onto the premises. Quite often, this can be achieved by adding an addendum to the lease which provides permission and any limitations on such permission by your company's lessor.

10. As to any potential property or personal injury damage, make sure your employees sign an indemnification agreement that will require each employee to pay the cost of any clean-up or defending any future dog bite case.

11. As to avoid potential health risks to other employees, a business should consider using barriers to separate allergic employees from the pets. Make sure that you obtain information from those employees who have allergies as to the specific nature of those allergies.

12. Of course, do not forget that you will have to maintain up to date vaccination records on every pet that is now allowed onto the corporate premises. 

13. Contact your local board of health to see if they need to weigh in on what a business must do to comply, if anything, with any applicable local town or city by-laws or ordinances.

14. Specify in your corporate policies the kinds of animals that will be permitted. It goes without saying that certain creatures such as snakes, for example, would not foster corporate well being with most employees.

15. Require that your employees provide insurance covering any potential damage or injury caused by their pets.

Do not let the tail wag the dog by allowing pets into the corporate workplace without first doing your homework. In working with various companies, the Katz Law Group has found that the best results come from a close collaboration between human resources and outside law firms such as the Katz Law Group. Please be sure to call us at 508-480-8202 in advance of allowing pets into your workplace to evaluate whether this makes sense for your business.

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