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Paws for thought – pets and the workplace

This is a cross-posted article, originally written on the Pure Employment Law Website and has now been posted here. Please note the date on which this article was posted originally and that any information within may have changed. 

29 September 2019

We thought we would cover some FAQs about the legal issues around employees bringing animals to work, and what rights pet owners have to take time off to care for their animals.

Are employees legally entitled to bring pets to work?

The usual answer is no – but an increasing number of employers are allowing pets to be brought into the workplace. In some cases a disabled employee/job applicant may be able to argue that they need to bring an animal to work – usually a well-trained assistance dog – if that amounts to a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010. This may include hearing dogs for deaf workers, seizure alert dogs for workers with epilepsy or disabled assistance dogs for a wide range of physical disabilities. If an employer did reject a job applicant or dismiss an employee who has a guide or assistance dog on the basis that they didn’t want animals in the workplace, they could face a claim against them for disability discrimination unless they can justify that decision.

Why might an employer choose to allow pets in the workplace?

As more and more employers embrace a flexible working ethos and strive to assist employees with achieving a good work-life balance, some organisations have been extending this into allowing employees to bring pets to work. This can avoid employees travelling home during the day to tend to a pet. In addition, having a pet with them can reduce employees’ stress and improve sense of well-being, and some may find their pet an asset in assisting their work – such as providing a greater feeling of companionship or security when patrolling a premises at night.

What considerations might you want to consider when allowing pets in the workplace?
Employers who do allow pets in the workplace would benefit from a policy which outlines the expectations of the organisation, so that all employees are aware of their responsibilities. It could detail which types of pets can be brought in, whether there are any prohibited areas (for example where there is food preparation), and what process will be followed in the event of any complaints. It is good to remember to tell prospective applicants that it is a pet-friendly work environment so they are aware of this at an early stage. Any policy should be linked to the company disciplinary policy, so breaches of it have clear consequences.

It would be useful to make it clear in your policy that the owner (keeper) of a dog will be legally responsible for the dog at all times, which includes if the dog injures somebody or causes any property damage. Guide or assistance dogs that have been trained by an accredited organisation are likely to have been trained to deal with work environments, but other animals may not be as familiar with them.

It may be worth checking whether your insurer covers you to have animals in the workplace, including any accidental damage caused to the building or its contents.

Health and Safety risk assessments should be completed to consider, for example, where the animal is going to be located in order to ensure the safety of employees, visitors and the welfare of the animal too. If an employee suffers from allergies then clearly this would normally take priority over a someone’s pet being in the workplace (also see our article on how employers should deal with allergies) but it might also be the case that a colleague is frightened of dogs or just doesn’t like them, so in that situation a solution would need to be found.

It may also be worth considering what happens if one employee’s pet does not get along with another employee’s animal and whether there are any legal restrictions in having animals at commercial premises, especially if your business shares any areas with other organisations which could, for example, be affected by the noise.

Pawternity leave?

There is currently no legal obligation for employers to give pet-related time off to their employees (whether paid or unpaid), such as for them to settle a new pet into their household, to care for a sick animal, get medical assistance for it, or due to the death of a pet. It would usually depend on the discretion of a particular workplace as to whether the employer is prepared to allow time off, although many employees would tend to use their annual leave.

It is however something that seems to be becoming more high profile for companies to offer as a ‘perk’ to employees, or a way for employers to try and differentiate themselves from the competition. If your workplace is planning to introduce this, then it is worth considering some guidelines to ensure it is implemented consistently.

It seems unlikely that it this kind of time off will ever become a legal right, but at a discretionary level it is something we expect to see more of in future.