Employers are facing an increasing number of requests from employees looking to bring their pets (normally dogs) into the office. This latest trend stems from the transition from home to office working, with many pet-owning employees not willing or able to spend a full day away from their pet. Pet ownership increased significantly over the pandemic, and pet owners are now experiencing a real shortage of day boarding and dog walking spaces. As well as this, the cost of these services can be problematic, especially with the increased financial pressure most people are experiencing at present.

Employers are beginning to realise the potential advantages of offering employees the ability to bring their pet to work. Employees may be more willing to return to the office if their pets can join, and dogs may be a morale booster in the office. Some employers, typically those with large office spaces, have been willing to accommodate (or at least help) with this, for example allowing employees to bring their dogs to work one day a month.

It’s a thorny issue from a legal perspective and can also ramp up the office politics. In this article, employment law specialist Keely Rushmore explains why any employer considering letting dogs into the workplace needs to consider their position carefully, not least from a disability discrimination and health and safety perspective.

Disability discrimination and pets in the workplace

The general position is that employers are not obliged to let employees bring their pets to work. However, if an employee has a disability that means they suffer a disadvantage at work, the Equality Act 2010 requires an employer to make any reasonable adjustments necessary to remove that disadvantage. Failure to do this could result in a disability discrimination claim. The obvious example is a guide dog to assist a visually impaired employee. However, assistance dogs help people with a wide range of health conditions such as hearing difficulties, diabetes and epilepsy. The concept of emotional support dogs is a less well-known and understood one (and is often met with scepticism). They are not yet formally classified as ‘assistance dogs’, but they have been shown to help people with mental health issues manage their conditions.

How to handle employee requests

If an employee requests that their pet accompanies them to the office, employers should be careful not to dismiss it immediately. Instead, they should follow a two-step process.

The first step is to establish why the employee would like to bring their pet to work, and particularly any health issues that have prompted the request. A medical need might be obvious in the case of a blind or deaf employee, but less so in the case of someone who, for example, suffers from depression. In this case, the first step is to obtain medical evidence to understand the disadvantage(s) that the employee is experiencing in the workplace and whether and how the dog can help overcome the disadvantage. The duty to make reasonable adjustments will only be triggered if the adjustment will actually help overcome the disadvantage suffered by the employee, so establishing the link (or lack of link) is important.

If the evidence supports the fact that the pet’s presence will help the employee overcome a disadvantage in the workplace, the second step is to carry out a risk assessment. Employers have a duty to maintain the health and safety of all of its employees (not just the person making the request), and it is important to assess that the dog is well-behaved and will not cause problems for other employees. For example, if another employee has a dog allergy, an employer needs to consider the effect on the other person (someone with a severe allergy could themselves be classed as disabled).

Employers could implement a trial period before committing to a policy for pets in the workplace.

Is a policy essential?

An increasing number of employers are implementing policies on pets in the workplace, enabling them to set out details of how an employee should make a request and the process for dealing with it. It can also set out expectations for behaviour in the workplace. Some behaviours (aggression, biting or destruction of property) may warrant the dog being banned from the workplace. Other behaviours (barking or soiling) might operate under a ‘three strikes’ policy.

In a challenging recruitment market, offering the opportunity to bring pets to the workplace could work in the employer’s favour. However, there are undoubtedly risks in doing so, and managing them carefully is key.

If you are an employer who is considering implementing a policy to allow pets in the workplace, please contact Keely Rushmore.

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.