Should employers permit staff to bring their pets to work if they act as emotional support animals to manage stress and anxiety? If so, what best practices might employers put in place if they are willing and able to accommodate this request to protect themselves and their other personnel? These are increasingly important questions in today’s workplace for companies that are seeking to balance legal compliance with competitive human strategy offerings.

What does the Americans with Disabilities Act say?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers have to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees and applicants with disabilities. This means that companies must be willing to alter how a job is completed, in order to assist employees with disabilities, if it does not cause undue hardship to the business nor its employees. Under this legislation, service animals are protected, and a request for allowing their presence in the workplace is likely to be met. The ADA defines a service animal as a creature which has been trained to take a specific action when needed, to assist a person with a disability. They provided examples such as a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Alternatively, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are defined as those who have not been trained in any specific task and provide only emotional support or comfort to its handler. As a result, they are not protected under the ADA. However, employers must still defer to other local or state laws that may offer some protection for these creatures in the workplace, though they are rare currently.

How should you respond to these requests?

Even though emotional support animals (ESAs) are not protected under the ADA, nor by most regional or local laws, some employers may still want to accommodate such requests in an increasingly competitive talent market and more mental health-conscious society. If possible, the best first step in these situations (or optimally, beforehand) is to set a policy that covers both service and emotional support animals in your workplace. With this said, employers are often caught “playing catch up” in these scenarios and must focus on being reactive than proactive. Therefore, employers must build a policy that can help address future potential inquiries.

Here are the steps that XcelHR recommends when an employee requests an ESA in the workplace:

  • Request a note from a medical provider that explains what the animal is being recommended for; whether there is a disability or medical need, and what the animal will do to support the employee. Please note:
    • If there are not enough details provided, you are permitted to request follow-up information!
    • Medical documentation must be kept to the highest standards of confidentiality and should only be handled by Human Resources.
    • If a service animal is required, you should also request evidence that the animal has the training recommended by the healthcare provider.
    • If an impairment is evident; for example, the employee is blind, employers may skip this step.
  • Once documentation has been provided, you should be able to verify whether a service or emotional support animal is being called for by the medical provider.
    • If a service animal is required, follow the appropriate measures to understand whether a reasonable accommodation can be made.
    • If an ESA is being recommended, it is now up to the employer to decide how to proceed. Should a company not wish to allow emotional support creatures in the workplace, most are within their rights to refuse this request (depending on the local law).
  • Should an employer wish to explore accommodating this request, here are some ideas about how to proceed:
    • Companies may first explore whether the employee can perform his or her role remotely. The creature should be held to the same standards that a service animal would be (except for the training), so the handler is responsible for ensuring that the creature is:
      • Always under control: no uncontrolled barking, jumping on other people, and such
      • On a harness or leash unless the handler is unable because of a disability
      • Housebroken and clean: odor is kept to a minimum, and proper flea prevention is utilized
      • In good health and vaccinated; All vaccines must be up-to-date.
    • An employer can set parameters around where the animal is and is not allowed. Also, set size and, or breed restriction. We encourage supplementing this by requiring training.
    • The Job Accommodation Network provides a recommendation to employers to allow the accommodation on a trial basis to see how the ESA behaves around the employee and others. They state:
      • Employers who do this often make a written agreement with the employee that specifies how long a trial will last and what factors might end this period early. For example, if the emotional support animal shows any sign of aggression or if the employee cannot keep the animal quiet or under control, the employer may immediately end the trial period and deny the request.
      • If phobias or allergies are brought up as a result of the ESA’s presence, further accommodations may be requested to mediate this. For example, give employees a private office.
    • An employer may require the employee to prove the ESA has passed some training standards, such as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.
    • Employers should also verify with their Workers’ Compensation carriers, whether allowing these creatures in the workplace will affect their rates.

emotional support pets at work

Once an employer has decided how to proceed, we encourage the individual to have their employee sign a document that sets out the expectations and parameters for the workplace. This agreement should include the employee’s legal responsibilities should the animal harm personnel or property belonging to the business or its employees. This agreement will help mitigate any risk you, as the employer, are taking on, and should be reviewed by a Labor & Employment lawyer.

Bringing emotional support animals to the office is a request that is growing quickly in popularity. While it is easy, and usually legal for employers to refuse this request, employers should take a moment to consider whether there is a way they can support their employees. The battle to retain good talent is constant, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. So, if there is a way to accommodate employees who require ESAs and still meet your business goals, why not explore it? Should you need more information on this topic, please contact us at (800) 776-0076 or email us at HRTeam@XcelHR.com.