11/15/2013 06:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can I Bring Cosmo to Work Today?

Do you like animals? I do -- and while shaking hands with a client at a recent meeting, his dog came lunging at us and knocked my watch off. I have spent years volunteering at an animal shelter, so I knew the dog's lunge was not aggressive. Nonetheless, the client was embarrassed. He explained that in their household they do "group hugs" and the dog participates. Cosmo -- "the perpetrator" -- had simply taken my outreached hand as a welcome invitation to join in the fun. If this had been my colleague instead of me, this situation might have had a very different outcome. Why? My colleague is terrified of dogs.

Recently, a dog-friendly client of mine had an employee who occasionally brought his dog to work. However, the dog displayed aggressive behavior to those walking past the employee's cubicle and would often lunge at them and bark loudly. When asked to control his dog, the employee indicated that his dog was a service animal. This client happens to work in a city where it's relatively easy to register any pet as a service animal. From an HR perspective, this makes it nearly impossible to just send the dog home, as elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act come into play. As a result, we needed to assess the feasibility of this being a reasonable accommodation.

Service animals aside, I often have clients who want to create fun environments where their employees can bring their animals to work. A survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers, stated 17 percent of Americans work at pet-friendly companies. However, with bringing our beloved pets, comes inherent risk. A few things to consider when deciding to adopt a pet-friendly environment:
  • Allergies -- what will you do if employees or guests have allergies? Options include: Pet-free zones, to ensure no pet will come in contact with an allergic employee or guest.
  • Fears -- what will you do for those employees or guests who are afraid of dogs? Options include: having pets on leash, in a closed office and/or accompanied at all times.
  • Behavior -- not all animals are welcoming. Even for the ones that are, their friendliness can be misinterpreted -- you remember Cosmo's group hug? Options include: controlling the number of animals allowed in the office on any given day, proof of obedience training, proof of up-to-date vaccinations, zero tolerance rules for violations or when there are complaints.

A best practice is to have a contract with those employees wanting to bring animals to work. The contract outlines the company's expectations for the employee and his or her animal. True -- this isn't exactly "fun," spontaneous and informal, but that way an employee can determine whether it is appropriate to bring their beloved pet into the office. Or, if Cosmo or another furry friend misbehave, there will not be any surprises on the consequences.