Take a scroll through the Twitter comments on the set of photos Inc. published last week of the superduper dog-friendly office of Kurgo, a company that makes travel gear for pups out of Salisbury, Massachusetts, and you'll find a lot of salivating dog owners.

Like: A lot.

But there are a few haters, too. One Twitter user shared the link, adding, "think of the smell...." Fair! It is a valid concern. Another just wrote "nightmare."

Hundreds of people commented on the piece on an Inc. post on Facebook. Most were enthusiastic. But some were appalled, saying they'd be afraid of getting bitten. 

For some, it is a personal nightmare to be forced to work alongside certain animals, even if you set aside the simple issue of distraction. One of the most serious complications is also the most obvious: allergies. A really bad case of employee-office-culture incompatibility was highlighted by a letter from an anonymous reader of Alison Green's Ask a Manager blog, who writes:  

My first day I walked into the office...and it was full of dogs. They have a dog-friendly office, which was never advertised or communicated during the hiring process. I'm allergic to dogs, VERY allergic. Within 10 minutes of arriving at work, my eyes are red, itchy, and watering, my nose stuffs up, and I get a headache from my swollen sinuses. This is what happens when I'm on medication! If I skip the meds, I break out in hives, start to wheeze, and I run the risk of my throat swelling closed.

Her story goes on for hundreds more words. It's not pleasant, and neither is the way her colleagues seem to turn against her for putting their favorite perk in peril. What should she do? To help answer the question, Green consulted "two awesome employment attorneys: Donna Ballman, author of the awesome Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired, and Bryan Cavanaugh."

She writes: "Donna and Bryan both agreed that based on your description, the allergy is likely to be covered as a disability under the ADA (which covers 'a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities')."

Cavanaugh concluded that the office was faced with the choice of either changing its policy (buh-bye, pups!) or facing potential litigation after the allergy-ridden employee decided she wasn't treated fairly.

(For the curious, she ended up leaving after the culture--not the dogs--got to her in an extreme way. See the update post at Ask a Manager for the full story, but the TL;DR is she threatened a lawsuit to HR, and got paid in full before walking out, with written assurance of positive reference. Happy ending: She got a new--dogless!--job easily and quickly.)

So, what's a dog-loving business to do? Chas Rampenthal, the general counsel at LegalZoom, once wrote on Inc.com that while dogs in the office might be seen as "hip" and a nice employee-recruitment technique, it is a legally risky move. Here's the list he compiled of the risks to a business that opens up its offices to employees' pets--and some potential solutions:

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 who 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 come 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.

The bottom line being: If you are going to open your doors to the four-legged friends your employees love, you'd best have a written policy to cover what happens when an animal is aggressive, disruptive, or gets bitey with your furnishings--or other employees. And be prepared to take any problems that arise very seriously.

Two other tips, the first one from Rampenthal, one from me.

Know your pets: "Of course, you should also make sure the pet is licensed and vaccinated--I suggest that you see some proof of this," Rampenthal writes.

Check your health regs: If your business deals with, or even serves, any food whatsoever, there is often specific licensing that you already need, and regulations to comply with. These vary by local jurisdiction, but often ban all non-service animals. Don't get your hopes up on little Muffin or Meatball joining the team if you deal with human food.

Published on: Jan 25, 2016