Pets in the workplace: How to manage liability of this employment benefit

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To allow dogs or not to allow dogs at work? That is the question. And it can be a tricky one.

Outside of laws around the Americans with Disabilities Act for accommodating service dogs in the workplace, businesses that choose to provide a dog-friendly environment say it’s a great employee benefit.

But what if Fido bites a staffer or runs roughshod through the office, destroying any equipment or furniture in its path?

Liability in the workplace falls first to the employer, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a member-based, 501 tax-exempt-status organization headquartered in New York City.

If an employee’s dog bites a co-worker, the business insurance policy would kick in and pay the claim, according to the organization.

However, it adds, the dog owner may also be found liable, and the victim could potentially sue the employer and the dog owner.

As of now, “there is nothing in a general liability form that excludes pets at work,” said Bryan Costello, executive vice president of San Rafael-based Costello & Sons Insurance Brokers. He suggested some companies may want to underwrite to limit exposure.

A commercial general liability policy will cover the associated costs with dog bites for business owners, according to Chandra Kwaske, commercial underwriting director at Burns & Wilcox, a Detroit-based brokerage firm. “Like a homeowners and renters policy, the CGL will usually cover the cost of medical bills to the injured party, legal and court fees related to the incident. … The CGL generally will not cover the costs associated with reputational damages, such as crisis communication efforts to combat negative media attention.

Organizations whose business is focused on dogs, such as Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence, are fully prepared on the liability front, according to Jeanine Konopelski, national director of marketing.

Canine Companions trains puppies to become service dogs to adults, children and veterans with disabilities. After a dog completes the training program, it matches it with the person it will assist, based on activity levels and personalities.

The organization’s insurance policy covers incidents — like bites and damage to property — that could happen throughout the service relationship, which can last many years.

“In the unlikely situation that a liability event occurs for one of our puppy raisers or graduates having to do with an action made by their dog, we want the people we serve to know that our insurance policy covers them,” Konopelski said. “Additionally, it provides institutions where our facility dogs may work (hospitals, courthouses, etc.) with added assurance that we take responsibility for the actions of our dogs.”

Dave Kendrick, co-founder and managing partner at San Rafael-based DogTrekker.com, which provides information for people who travel with dogs, said there are several steps businesses must consider before letting dogs on the premises.

“There are people who either don’t like dogs or have allergies or other health issues that need to be considered. Rules need to be established based upon the size of the organization, layout of the work space and other considerations,” Kendrick said. “It’s wise to form a pet committee prior to committing to opening the doors to dogs to identify these issues, establish policies, review insurance policies, work with HR and test the plans. A great way to test out how it would work with pet parents and employers is an open invitation to participate in the annual Bring Your Dog to Work Day, which will be held this year on Friday, June 21.”

Businesses that allow dogs could also have a leg up when it comes to staffing.

“For the company, having a dog-friendly office allows them to attract and keep top talent,” he said, “as well as fostering increased collaboration throughout the office and bolstering the workplace culture.”

That’s the direction Glassdoor took when it became a dog-friendly workplace in 2013. Launched in 2008, the jobs website provides employee reviews of companies, employer salaries and benefits, job postings, and original articles and blogs.

“There’s been research done showing that pet-friendly policies do help companies attract and retain talent,” said Glassdoor spokeswoman Amelia Green-Vamos. “Plus, with the unemployment rate at an all-time low, employers must incorporate appealing perks to attract top talent. A dog-friendly office is a cost-efficient perk that many offices can implement.”

Before inviting dogs into its Mill Valley headquarters, Glassdoor established rules and guidelines, including requiring all on-site dogs to be housebroken, socialized and without barking issues, Green-Vamos said.

“(We) also have designated areas for those who have allergies or work more comfortably without dogs around,” she said. “Ensuring all employees are comfortable is a critical component before an office decides to become dog-friendly.”

“It’s a very sweet idea to have a pet-friendly workplace but we find that it can be difficult to manage,” said Lindsey Brown, HR consultant at Santa Rosa-based The HR Matrix LLC. “Unfortunately, although most of us are animal lovers, we have seen a variety of undesirable impacts, including pets that were aggressive, messy, loud, or allergy producing. In the end, we usually caution our clients to analyze the benefits versus the potential the risks. It may be more suitable to offer a planned ‘bring your pet to work day’ versus having it be an ongoing policy.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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