Patricia Chaney

How to Accommodate Service Animals at Work

Is your office dog-friendly? No, it’s not a question of whether you let your employees bring their pets to work. While that can be a valuable perk of its own at some companies, you may also encounter employees who want to bring Spot to work because they rely on a service dog for health reasons

It’s smart to establish guidelines before the subject even arises. But what should that policy look like? Here’s how to craft a successful service animal policy.

Why Service Animals Enter the Workplace

Services animals are dogs that have been trained to perform specific tasks related to the disability of their handler. Some can detect when their handler’s blood sugar is getting dangerously low and alert them to take action, while others sense when a seizure is coming on and ensure their handler is safe through the episode. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) just says “dog” in its definition of a service animal, but any breed can qualify.

A service dog assists people who have physical, sensory, intellectual, mental or psychiatric disabilities. As an employer, you have to follow some legal obligations under the ADA if you want to introduce service animals to the workplace — however, emotional support or comfort animals aren’t the same as service animals, and you have no legal obligation to allow them in the workplace.

Employer Responsibilities

The ADA requires that employers make what it calls “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace for people with disabilities. The law isn’t crystal clear, however, on what counts as “reasonable” and what skews toward “undue hardship.” You can receive fines for not attempting reasonable accommodations, so be thorough in assessing service dog requests. You can request documentation on how the dog helps the employee complete their work, as well as proof of training.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have a responsibility to just one employee, but to all of them. Consider whether the dog will affect the rest of your workforce. How does the animal impact day-to-day operations? Are there safety concerns, such as any employee allergies? When employees’ needs are at odds, you can still approve the request — but you might have to apply conditions.

Some actions you could take include:

  • Providing a private office space for the employee with an animal
  • Designating animal-free areas of the office, such as conference rooms or other shared spaces
  • Offering telecommuting options
  • Installing air purifiers to reduce animal dander in the air

If the dog’s presence would reduce the safety of the workplace or change the nature of your goods and services, you do not have to allow service animals in the workplace. If you’re unsure about what you can do, consult a lawyer before approving or denying a request from an employee.

Employee Responsibilities

The handler must always be in control of the service animal. If the employee is unable to control the animal in the office or the dog isn’t housetrained, then it’s fair to remove the dog under your service animal policy.

Also make a point to communicate that the employee is solely responsible for their dog, even in the office. It’s not down to you or your other employees to feed or take care of the dog.

Accommodating a Service Animal Properly

Not all employees will be on board with having a dog at work. Some of them might even be suspicious that their coworkers will try to flout the rules and pretend that a comfort animal is a legitimate service dog. Because many people who rely on the services of these trained dogs have invisible illnesses, you may need to educate your workforce upfront.

First, give plenty of notice that an employee will start bringing a service animal to work. Share basic information about how these dogs are trained and what they do for people, but skip specific details of the employee’s medical situation. Also, note what you’re doing in the workplace to make this an easy transition for the entire staff.

Finally, ask for input from the employee in question. What do they want their colleagues to understand? Is petting allowed? What about treats? Answering these fundamental questions before the dog is physically in the office will reduce conflicts among employees, even those who support having an animal at work.

Laws also vary by state, so consult your human resources department or a lawyer to be sure of what you’re reasonably expected to do. After all, disability support can be a sensitive issue. Communicating openly with your employees and showing that you care about their concerns will keep your workforce engaged, happy and focused on the work to be done — not on the adorable ball of fluff in the break room.

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