The song is in your head now, isn’t it? You know the one. Now you have this vision of a pile of big and little, furry dogs, ears flopping up and down, running wildly, ...through the halls of your organization. And suddenly, the music in your head has come to a screeching halt. Who let the dogs…at work? Service and emotional support dogs have become more prevalent as a form of reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities employed in private, public, and federal sector workplaces all over the country. Fortunately, the issue of whether or not a dog must be permitted as a reasonable accommodation at work is rarely debated now. Employers are more informed about service and emotional support animals as accommodations and understand that having a dog at work, for some people who require it due to their disability, promotes effective job performance.
While there is little debate over the need to consider access for service and emotional support dogs as an accommodation in the workplace, employers sometimes wonder about the best way to inform others in the workplace concerning Fido’s impending presence. We know that, under the ADA, employers are permitted to share limited information about the animal with those who are on a “need-to-know” basis. For example, a manager or supervisor might be informed about a service dog and how to interact appropriately. However, the employer is not permitted to share disability-related information with co-workers. As this at times can be confusing, let us offer a couple of best practices while teasing out the question of confidentiality and service and emotional support dogs as an accommodation in the workplace.
Let’s start with a couple of best employer practices in regard to service and emotional support dogs. A service or emotional support dog is an obvious accommodation that will immediately be known by others who encounter the dog at work. It’s also an accommodation that could impact other employees. In some ways, it’s like acknowledging the elephant in the room, but a much furrier, smaller elephant, that sometimes barks. Preparing employees for dogs in the workplace, like other accommodations, should begin before a dog arrives, or accommodations are needed. What I mean is, when employees are educated about the ADA and their ability to request workplace accommodations, there can be fewer questions or cause for concern when an accommodation is implemented because people just know – they understand why there is a change at work. So as a best practice, employers who promote an informed and inclusive workplace should offer disability etiquette training to all employees and educate people about interacting with service animals in general.
Another best employer practice in response to an employee accommodation request for the use of a service or emotional support dog is to ask the employee using the service animal how they would like to handle the situation of informing (or not informing) others about the presence of the dog and how to interact appropriately prior to bringing the dog to work. Dog lovers beware and resist the urge to go nose-to-nose with that furry animal! The dog has a job to do. As is often the case, the employee being accommodated may be the best source for input and information. Note that the employee who uses a service dog is free to independently (and voluntarily) share information about their animal and need for accommodation with others in the workplace.
However, if an employee is uncomfortable with the employer sharing information about the service or emotional support dog and the employee prefers not to share information, then it is the employer’s obligation to protect the confidentiality of the employee with a disability and their request of a service animal as an accommodation. But then you may ask yourself, doesn’t the supervisor, manager, or other personnel involved in the provision of the accommodation need to know some information about the accommodation? The answer is yes – but only those who are on a “need-to-know” basis should have this information. For example, a manager or supervisor who is responsible for implementing the use of a service animal in a particular job site. These “need-to-know” personnel will need to know how to effectively integrate the service animal into the workplace, including where the service animal will relieve itself or if the service animal will be included in meeting spaces. However, it could be a breach of confidentiality for employers to reveal why the service or emotional support dog is needed.
So what about the employee’s co-workers? What information can an employer share with them? We know that, under the ADA, employers are not permitted to share disability-related information with co-workers. This would be a breach of confidentiality. We also know that while employers have no particular obligation to inform others that a dog will be allowed on the premises, there are dynamics in the workplace where providing limited information is important. For instance, in the event a co-worker is afraid of dogs or has an animal allergy, or perhaps when questions arise about why a “no animals” policy is being modified.
How then does an employer communicate that a dog will be soon entering the workplace? As stated previously, revealing that an employee is being “accommodated” is a violation of confidentiality, so we suggest employers be cautious about using the terms “service” or “emotional support” dog when announcing that a dog will be allowed on the premises. Informal guidance JAN has received from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on this issue notes that verifying that a dog is a service animal and not a pet is revealing that the employer is allowing the animal onto its premises because of the services it performs as a reasonable accommodation. This, in turn, is revealing that the employee using the service animal has a disability, even if the disclosure is not revealing the nature of the disability.
In light of this EEOC guidance, we suggest employers who feel the need to share that a dog will be on the premises can share this information with limited individuals in the employee’s immediate work area. These co-workers, given their working proximity to the employee who requires the service animal, might be informed that a dog will be present, that its particular presence is approved by the employer, and who to contact if someone has an issue or concern regarding the matter. This approach is informative to the extent necessary, makes it clear that the employer is aware and approves the dog’s presence in the workplace, and provides information to co-workers about who to contact if, for instance, they have an allergy or a fear of dogs, so these issues can be resolved privately.
So our tips for communicating to employees about service animals:
- Prepare your workforce for the inevitable presence of a service or emotional support dog with general disability etiquette training including specific information about service animals.
- Discuss with the employee requesting access for a service or emotional support dog as an accommodation their expectations for how others should interact with the dog. Ask what information, if any at all, the employee would like shared with others about the dog’s presence.
- Inform managers or supervisors on a need-to-know basis about service and emotional support dogs as accommodations. Managers or supervisors will need to know what their role is in effectively implementing the accommodation.
- When necessary, let co-workers know in advance that a dog – not a “service” or “emotional support” dog – will be entering the workplace and who to contact if there are questions or concerns.