Bringing Pets to the Workplace

Each day, at 3 p.m., a beagle by the name of Hamlet struts into the offices of SEC, Inc., in Coral Gables, Fla. Employees at the consulting firm can set their watch to Hamlet's grand entrance.

The routine is so set that when his owner is away, employees volunteer to bring Hamlet at the same time every day – to keep the 3-year-old beagle's schedule the same. When Hamlet isn't in, others bring in their pets (Hamlet, apparently, does not work and play well with others.) "Our pets provide us some drama around here," says employee John Woolridge.

The bottom line is that change is afoot in the corporate workplace as more businesses open their doors to both their workers' and customers' pets. The result is a boost in morale, productivity and sales. What's behind the trend toward pets at work? Companies will go to great lengths to win – and retain – good workers. The answer isn't always money.

Ground Rules

There are some ground rules: Respect others. No biting, barking, howling. And after three "accidents," home goes your pet. And good sense keeps them out of most healthcare facilities, food service operations and industrial settings.

Not too long ago, when the parking lots at Replacements, Ltd. in Greensboro, N.C., were being revamped, staffers were forced to park on the street. Every morning a promenade of people marched into work with their dogs.

One day, a passing couple pulled over and called to employee Julie Schindler, a telephone sales representative who was with her dog, Weenie. "Excuse me, miss. We saw all of the cars and all of the dogs. Is there a dog show in this building today?" Schindler chuckles as she recalls the scene and her frank, if unexpected, reply. "No," she said. "We sell china!"

At this multimillion-dollar company dealing in replacement china, crystal, silver and collectibles, employees have grown accustomed to canines padding around the premises. After all, more than three years have passed since the business opened its spacious headquarters to employees' dogs. Now, no one raises an eyebrow when a family of dachshunds sits in on a board meeting or when a Great Dane steps among the $1,400 place settings in the company's handsome showroom.

Furrier days have indeed come to the American workplace. Attribute it to a growing respect for the human-animal bond, more relaxed attitudes on the job or competition to attract and retain skilled employees.

Granted, the animals do not have carte blanche, as common sense and local ordinances keep all but service dogs out of food preparation, medical and industrial settings. And casual Fridays notwithstanding, more traditional firms have yet to loosen their collars that much.

Permission to Bring Your Pet

But to win and keep good workers, companies are open to more possibilities than ever, providing day care, flexible hours and, for pet lovers, permission to bring their animal companions to work, sometimes daily, sometimes only when the need arises. For some workers, this kind of treatment cements loyalty and keeps them from seeking greener pastures. And though cats, rats, hamsters and other pets have also found their way into the workplace, dogs, because of their sociable nature and ability to travel easily, tend to be the most common visitors.

"What we're talking about here is a corporate-culture issue," explains Bruce Tulgan, business consultant and author of Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent. "If a company allows pets at work, that represents a pretty free-thinking, open-minded, workplace-of-the-future kind of corporate culture."

Anecdotal evidence keeps rolling in about the benefits of animal companionship on the job. It makes for happier employees, says Kay Calzolari of Pet Sitters International, an association for professional pet sitters, which sponsored its first Take Your Dog to Work Day in 1999. "Happier employees result in enhanced job performance," she says. "Increased sales have been reported by store owners who take their dogs to work. Staff morale and worker productivity increases. And some people have reported increased camaraderie among employees."

Some companies, such as Replacements, Ltd., welcome well-behaved dogs , whether they belong to employees or customers, at any time. Others have experimented with one day a week. And still others limit pet visits to times when it is absolutely necessary – the day of a veterinary visit, for instance, or if the employee's home is being fumigated.

Pets produce a family atmosphere. And many employees who would otherwise be rushing out at day's end to minister to Bowser or Fluffy report they tend to stay on the job later. "It's a great job benefit," says Liam Sullivan, a spokesman for Replacements, Ltd. "It reduces absenteeism. People can bring their pets to work and not worry about them at home. It's also a real icebreaker."

Rules for the Workplace

This is not to say that bringing one's pet to work is always the best idea – for people or animals. There are health and safety issues for both species. Even in seemingly innocuous environments, problems can crop up, so companies should establish ground rules. First, it's crucial that dogs have at least basic obedience skills. Housebreaking and litter training are essential. A number of companies have "three strikes and you're out" rules, insisting that pets stay home after three accidents. Distracting barking, whining and howling are verboten. And vaccinations must be current.

The most basic rule, however, is that every owner consider the effect on coworkers or customers who might have allergies or be uncomfortable around dogs or other animals. Some companies might have separate areas or offices, which could prevent problems. But, in all cases, the feelings of all staff members must be respected.

The Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., clearly has reservations about bringing pets on the job. Some companies may be able to make it work, says spokesperson Kristin Accipter, but she doubts the trend will or should become widespread. "It just adds a whole new element to the workplace that workers shouldn't have to deal with," she maintains. "There are enough challenges for coworkers getting along in the workplace as it is."

Accipter suspects pets would become a distraction at best and a legal concern for companies at worst. Dogs, she points out, have been known to bite people now and then, and these are litigious days.

Dogs, after all, are dogs. Some, of course, have done their share of inappropriate chewing and marking territory. But at Replacements, Ltd., Liam Sullivan boasts that nary a piece of china or crystal has ever been damaged by a dog. "We've had employees drop stuff," he concedes. "We've had customers knock stuff over. But never a pet."