It's dog days at workplace

Pets are becoming a more common sight at offices

July 19, 2006|By HANAH CHO | HANAH CHO,SUN REPORTER

When Casey's in the office, the vibe at the Bethesda office of the Nature Conservancy becomes a little more upbeat, a little more fun.

That's because Casey is no ordinary employee. She's a German shepherd and beagle mix dog, who has become a regular visitor at the office.

"People just get so excited," said Peggy Marson, Casey's owner and the conservancy's director of operations, where a formal policy allowing dogs was put in place last month. "If there's a week where I haven't brought Casey, everyone says, `Where's Casey?'"

Pets, especially dogs, are becoming a more common fixture at workplaces across the country, with more companies viewing it as a way to attract and retain employees, so Fido and Kitty are joining their owners at corporate offices, architectural firms and Internet companies.

"A pet-friendly policy falls into the area of employee relations," said Mal Warwick, co-author of Values-Driven Business. "On the whole, it could be a good example of how to make employees feel better about spending all the time they do at work."

Not everyone is on board. Some workplace experts say animals simply don't belong at work. And they say pets could turn off some clients as well as co-workers.

Baltimore-area employers acknowledge the practice can't work everywhere.

Mela Kucera, an account supervisor at public relations and marketing firm Imre Communications, said clients may be surprised at first to find dogs roaming its Baltimore office on some days.

But, "the personality of Imre Communications is unique, creative and fun-loving and our clients respect that and seek that in us."

"Coming in and finding a dog romping around reinforces the point that we're a different organization. And we're willing to do different things," she said.

Nearly one in five companies allows pets in the workplace, according to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Greenwich, Conn. Even job search engines are promoting the trend by providing a way for workers to find pet-friendly workplaces.

In January, SimplyHired.com and Dogster.com launched a dog-friendly job search tool -www.SimplyHired.com/DogFriendly. Notable dog-friendly companies include Google Inc. and amazon.com.

"It has probably been our most popular filter," said Kay Luo, director of marketing at SimplyHired.com. "People are very passionate about their pooches."

Industry experts say allowing pets in the workplace can help reduce stress and anxiety. Employees can stay at work later instead of rushing home to walk their dogs. And they don't have to feel guilty about leaving their pets home alone. Employers and workers say having pets in the office also creates a lively and even more productive environment.

"A positive, happy work environment makes a difference in an employee's productivity and encourages a very happy, hardworking and spirited work force," said Maxine Clark, founder and chief executive of Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc., the operator of its namesake retail stores.

The St. Louis-based company said it has not had any issues since allowing dogs at its headquarters seven years ago. All dogs must have proper vaccinations, the company said. On any given day, about eight to 10 employees bring their dogs, ranging from a golden retriever to a pug, Clark said. The company does not allow pets in its retail stores because it must follow shopping center policies.

Still, others point to a litany of reasons why pets should be kept at home. Chiefly, some colleagues can be allergic to cats or dogs. Others can be frightened of animals. And there could be inconveniences like funky smells or barking.

At worst, the practice could create a potential for lawsuits, said Lynda Ford, president of the Ford Group, a management and human resources consulting firm in Rome, N.Y.

So, despite good intentions by employers to create an inviting work environment, the idea is "lunacy," Ford said.

"Where do you draw the line on pets? Is it a cat, dog or turtle?" Ford said. "Nothing gives me more sheer pleasure and joy than my pets, but I don't want my pets or any other pets at work."

Companies that allow pets in the workplace have established pet-friendly policies or set guidelines to offset concerns.

For instance, at the Maryland-District of Columbia chapter of the Nature Conservancy, dogs must be confined to a worker's office and be well-behaved. Loud, repetitive barking is not allowed, and owners are responsible for cleanup and any damages. Marson, for example, brings her dog to work once or twice a week.

The Nature Conservancy created a policy about a month ago allowing the practice. It had been in place for about a year informally after some employees asked to bring their dogs in, said Nat Williams, the chapter director.

"Frankly, if it disrupted the normal course of business, then we wouldn't let them," Williams said.

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