Animals in the workplace—for many of us, this sounds like a great idea, and there are certainly big pluses to having pets around at work, including decreased stress levels and a more positive work environment. The result is that an increasing number of organizations are implementing animal-friendly policies. But going pet-positive doesn’t work for every work environment. And in most cases, if being pro-pet doesn’t work for your organization, it’s fine to say no.
But what do you do when an employee needs to bring their animal to work? With more employees using service or support animals to address a variety of disabilities, many employers are left scratching their heads over their rights and duties when it comes to service animals.
Accommodating disabilities can be challenging—as employers and leaders, we try to do it well, but the path to successfully accommodating service animals isn’t always clear. There are lots of variables to consider in the process: What if there are safety risks for employees, customers, or the animal? What if another employee is allergic? How will you handle the logistics of the animal’s basic needs? What if the animal is a distraction in the workplace?
As an employer, what do you need to know if an employee in your workplace requests a service animal as an accommodation?
To stay compliant with BC’s Human Rights Code, or Canada’s Human Rights Act (if you’re federally regulated), service animals are the same as any other accommodation. You can’t say “No” to an employee who needs an adjustable height desk just because it’s inconvenient, and it’s the same with service animals.
The bottom line? As an employer, you have a duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship.
Of course, we’ve all heard the term “undue hardship” tossed around, but it can be a nebulous yardstick to measure by since the definition of undue hardship is based on multiple factors, and there’s a high threshold for proving undue hardship exists. And while it may be inconvenient to navigate the logistics of an animal in the workplace, simple inconvenience doesn’t equal undue hardship. Unless you can prove it will drive your business to bankruptcy, or create a major health and safety risk, you’ll likely have to figure out how to make it happen.
While the high threshold for undue hardship means accommodating an employee’s reasonable requests is usually necessary, it’s also important to remember that your duty to accommodate doesn’t mean you have to bend over backwards for every request for an emotional support lizard or a mental wellness cat. There are rules in place to protect employers from bogus service animal claims. As well, employees have a responsibility to participate in the accommodation process, which means they are tasked with providing the necessary information and documentation to prove the legitimacy of their request, including:
1. Proof that they have a disability.
2. Proof that the service animal is a necessary accommodation for that disability.
3. Proof that the service animal is properly trained and certified in accordance with BC’s Guide and Service Dog Act.
These 3 criteria set out some of the current legal parameters, but this is an emerging area of Canadian law to keep an eye on, particularly as an increasing number of employees are using emotional support animals to address mental health concerns. As with any other accommodation, accommodating service and support animals at work requires clarity, communication, and collaboration between the employer and the employee.
Your Engaged HR Assignment: Does your organization have a clear accommodation policy in place? If not, now’s the time to create some clarity around your accommodation procedures!
And as always, if you’re stuck, feel free to contact us for help.