Lots of cool start-ups allow employees to bring their pets to work. But what's good for the pet lover might not be so good for the company.
We have all seen pictures of "cool" companies that offer extra perks for their employees. And for pet owners, there is one perk they value very highly: the ability to take their pet, typically a dog, to work with them.
As a pet owner, you might feel bad leaving Sparky home alone with just food and water for company. And you probably believe that if you could just bring your pet to the office, you would be so much more productive. You wouldn't leave early to go on that walk. You could take a stroll around the company and burn the midnight oil in the office guilt-free. According to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, nearly a quarter of employees believe that pets should be allowed in the workplace. This year, thousands of U.S. companies celebrated Take Your Dog to Work Day in June, a tradition that started in 1996.
But legally, it's not so straightforward. Every once in a while, I get a question from a small-business owner about the legality of "pets in the workplace" policies. Most come to me with a preconceived notion--they want their employees to feel free to bring a pet. But is it actually good for your business? Before you install that doggy door, here are some of the legal issues to consider:
Personal injury: As a business owner, you can be held liable if an animal you allow in the workplace injures an employee, customer, or even the delivery guy. There are plenty of dog-bite attorneys out there that see nothing but dollar signs when they can name a company in the lawsuit. The solution: Make the pet owner get insurance that will cover any injuries caused by the pet. In my opinion, it is not too much to require the employee to sign an indemnification agreement that will require the employee to pay the cost of defending any dog-bite case that comes your company's way.
Property damage: We love the little furry guys, but face it--pets can damage carpets, computers, and other office equipment and furniture, not to mention "eat your presentation." You could be liable if an animal destroys another employee's personal property that was rightfully at the office. The solution: See above--insurance and indemnification are a good first step, but if you feel like this is not adequate, you can even have your pet-owning employee contract to cover any damages (or agree to a clause that sets aside part of his or her paycheck to cover damages).
Landlord problems: You might be OK with pets, but if you lease your office space, it isn't entirely your call. Many lease agreements deal with the subject, and they might require you to get landlord permission before you allow pets in the building. The solution: Read (or reread) your lease. Make sure that it is OK with the building owner. If you are not sure, ask permission first, rather than risking it and asking later for forgiveness.
Disability liability: Not everyone is a pet lover. In fact, for some people, being near a pet is the equivalent of being underwater--they just can't breathe. An animal allergy may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. If so, you as an employer are expected to make reasonable accommodations to any employees who request such; otherwise you risk an ADA violation. The jury is still out on this one, especially when one employee needs to have a service dog and another employee has a horrible allergic reaction to dogs. That topic is an article all to itself--because nobody seems to have an answer! The partial solution: Try to keep work animals in certain areas, and when possible use barriers to separate allergic people from the animals that bother them. Get documentation from all employees with allergies so you understand what they are allergic to. If there's still a problem, err on the side of safety and don't allow pets--if you can, of course.
So, if you are considering opening your business to employee pets, create written rules that dictate when animals can come and what happens if the animal is aggressive or damages property, or if the animal is disruptive to work. Make sure that the owner follows your rules and keeps the pet area tidy. Be sure to talk it over with your landlord and your insurer to make sure you will not violate your agreements. Of course, you should also make sure the pet is licensed and vaccinated--I suggest that you see some proof of this. Last but not least, get the pet owner to sign an agreement that he or she will comply with the policy and accept financial responsibility if something goes wrong.
And if you operate a business that has anything to do with handling food, then I suggest you have a talk with the local licensing bureau, because the health regulations are typically very specific when it comes to animals and food.
If you decide to have a pet-friendly workplace, make sure you listen to your employees and invited visitors. If there are issues, take them seriously, and enforce your policy. If you treat everyone with respect--pet lover or not--you are likely to defuse a bad situation before it escalates.
CHAS RAMPENTHAL is general counsel and vice president of product development at LegalZoom. He's also a former talk radio host (KTLK AM 1150 at Clear Channel) and an entrepreneur himself, as the founder of LegalEndeavor. @LegalZoom