Pets in the workplace: dog days or cat's meow?: Animals a great benefit for some businesses, but others might whine about it

February 26, 2007

Sid Vicious-the cat, not the dead punk-rock renegade-and his feline friend Topper are almost as much a part of Halstead Architects as the eight employees.

Perhaps they do enjoy destroying drawings more than sketching them, but their role at the Fountain Square firm has grown from mere mousers to beloved companions.

That's especially true for architect Jeff Schroeder, who adopted Sid from the Indianapolis Humane Society after a rodent crawled up his leg following the firm's arrival at a former Fountain Square machine shop in 1999.

The cats are "a pleasant diversion when the day gets a bit hectic," he said.

To be sure, the practice of having pets on the premises, or letting employees bring their own, is becoming more than just a fad. In 2005, about 10,000

companies participated in Take Your Dog to Work Day, way up from the 300 who participated the first time in 1999, according to Pet Sitters International.

The North Carolina-based membership organization that created the day held each June touts the benefits of having animals around, claiming that productivity, morale and sales all increase when Rover roams the office.

The folks at Brulin & Co. Inc. near 30th Street and Fall Creek Parkway in Indianapolis say that's true. The manufacturer of chemical cleaning products, which employs nearly 100 people, adopted its petfriendly benefits policy more than 10 years ago, said Kerrie Lafky, the company's human resources manager.

Canines are contained to the office portion of the building and are allowed as long as they are not disruptive or bothersome. Two workers currently bring their Irish setter and golden retriever puppies, kind of like mothers in a day care dilemma, sans the water dish and occasional accident on the floor.

"You see a lot of smiles on people's faces," Lafky said. "You have to weigh the risk with the benefit, and we decided it was well worth the risk."

Barking up the wrong tree?

Even so, not everyone agrees about the benefits of pets in the workplace, especially employment lawyers who say it's best to muzzle these types of policies.

The Americans With Disabilities Act and similar state laws may obligate employers to permit service animals such as seeing-eye dogs. Beyond that, though, permitting animals at work carries too many legal risks for Craig Borowski, an associate attorney at Baker & Daniels LLP, to advise his clients it's OK.

"When you let pets in the workplace, there is a very real safety issue," he said. "In my opinion, from a legal perspective, the risks far outweigh the rewards."

Employers have a duty under Occupational Safety and Health Association regulations to provide a safe working environment, although OSHA does not prohibit the presence of pets in the workplace, according to the agency. If a building has to be evacuated for a fire or other emergency, the animals could create a hazard, or at least a delay, Borowski said.

Or an unassuming co-worker could slip and fall on a puddle of potty gone unnoticed, giving insurers a basis not to cover an accident or claim under Worker's Compensation.

The most obvious fear is a dog's getting loose and biting someone. Granted, an employee probably isn't going to invite a vicious animal into work, Borowski said, but a dog bite could create an issue over whether the organization was negligent in permitting the animal on the premises.

One local human resources executive knows of separate cases in which employers ended the practice due to the arrival of a Rottweiler and a summer flea season that caused the company to fumigate the property.

Companies leasing office space certainly need to know what is forbidden, said Chuck Baldwin, a shareholder of the local office of Atlanta-based Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC.

"If you can't smoke in a building," he said, "I'm not so sure they would want pets in there, either."

Both Baldwin and Borowski are skeptical of supporters' assertions that pets improve productivity, instead arguing that they decrease output by causing distractions or disruptions. And employees unsupportive of the policies might do a bit of barking of their own.

Relaxing atmospheres

But some business managers don't seem to mind the potential problems, such as Laura Christy, owner of Carmel's Natural Stone Specialist, an importer, distributor and designer of tile. She knows her seven employees are animal lovers because they said so when queried during interviews.

As for customers, there's a sign on the door alerting them of Winston's presence. Even so, some will ask that the black Labrador be put away, and Christy obliges. Most enjoy his presence, though, she said.

"When the customers come in, especially the homeowners, it's a very stressful time with making decisions and being on budget," Christy said. "We've tried to create a very relaxed atmosphere, and the pets help that, especially if [the customers] have children."

Natural Stone Specialist's pets also include Lily the cat and three birds: Aki, a blue and gold macaw; Esca, a Moluccan cockatoo; and Chirpy, a parakeet adopted from a truck driver whose daughter lost interest.

None of her seven employees has asked to bring their pets to work, said Christy, noting approval would depend upon the type of animal.

But bringing pets to work isn't uncommon for some of the 25 workers at Dodd Technologies Inc., an event, meeting and entertainment production company in Plainfield. Its location next to a horse farm that owner Mark Dodd operates makes it easier. Further, three mixed-breed dogs roam the 112-acre complex, anyway.

Dodd allows animals because few customers have reason to visit the company. Employees appreciate the benefit because they often face project deadlines that might require them to work up to 10 days in a row.

"We're just trying to give them some flexibility in their life and work styles," Dodd said. "For a lot of people, especially those that don't have families, their pets are their significant others."

Meanwhile, at Halstead Architects, the only problems the two cats there pose are the potential to activate allergies. In the case of one client, the felines are relegated to the rest room during meetings.

While the relaxed atmosphere at Halstead makes for an ideal environment, Schroeder admits pets aren't right for every office. Perhaps more important, someone has to be responsible for their care. Schroeder, for instance, is the one who feeds the cats and keeps their litter box clean.
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