Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pets in the workplace: assessing the risks and drafting a policy

Sarah’s Needleman’s Small-Business Boss column in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses pet-friendly workplaces. I spoke with Sarah earlier this week. Here’s what I had to say:

“You want to set expectations,” says Jon Hyman, a partner in the labor and employment group at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL, a law firm in Cleveland. For example, he suggests that owners determine if employees can leave a pet at work while they go off-campus to a meeting and where the animal should stay during their absence.

Business owners should also consider how they would help employees who are allergic to animals avoid flare-ups if they allow pets in their workplaces. Mr. Hyman says that while rare, workers have successfully sued business owners for violating the American Disabilities Act by not taking such steps.

“If you have an employee that just cannot be in the same facility, you would have to accommodate that person,” he says. “You have to run your business first, and the core of your business is still your people.”

Are you thinking about opening up your business to employees’ pets? You will find very few resources on the Internet to help. And, you will need a written policy before you allow pets in. Here’s some considerations.

  1. People come first. Despite your desire to allow pets—whether as a perk, a recruitment tool, or both—your employees still make up the core of your enterprise. If you have to choose between an employee or a pet, you should always choose the employee.

  2. One of the biggest legal risk is the Americans with Disabilities Act. If an employee is allergic to animals, pet owners must understand that they may have to leave their animals at home as a reasonable accommodation. Other possible accommodations include creating sufficient separation between the allergic employee and the pet, segregating the pet to a specific part of the facility, or improving ventilation. Ignoring the pleas of an allergic employee, though, will open you up to potential ADA liability.

  3. Animals must of “office broken.” Animals with any bite history should not be permitted. Moreover, any aggressive behavior, such as growling, barking, chasing, or biting, should result in the animal’s expulsion on the first complaint. Animals should also be house broken, friendly towards people and other animals, and not protective of their owners or their owners’ spaces. Finally, you should define when animals must be leashed or caged, and what is expected of employees when they have to leave the workplace during the work day.

  4. Respect for property. Designate a specific area outside for animals to go to the bathroom (preferably away from the entrances), and make sure pet owners understand that it is their responsibility to clean up messes outside and accidents inside.

  5. Licenses and vaccinations. Before being permitted to bring animals to work, owners should verify that vaccinations are up to date, and that the animal licensed and free of parasites and insects. 

  6. Liability. Employees should verify, in writing, that they have sufficient home owners’ or renters’ insurance to cover any damage to person or property caused by the animal. You should also consider indemnification in case your business gets sued, and a paycheck deduction authorization for any damage caused.

If you are considering having a pet-friendly workplace, I recommend contacting qualified employment counsel to walk you through the risks and assist in drafting an appropriate policy.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or