From the desk of James Potts, M.S., Senior Consultant - Cognitive/Neurological Team
Jordan requested and was approved the use of a service animal at work. At first everything in the office was great, but as time elapsed coworkers have become more comfortable with the service animal and issues have been identified by Jordan about how coworkers engage with the service animal. Jordan brought his concerns up to Human Resources and asked for assistance to address the problem.
An employer approved Liz’s request for a service animal at work. However, the employer noticed that many of the staff seek attention from the animal and Liz seems stressed in these situations. The employer has noticed a performance slip in coworkers directly around the animal and called JAN to determine appropriate strategies to work through the situation.
For the above scenarios, there is a problem in the workplace in relation to the service animal, but it would be wrong to say the animal or the person with the disability are at the root of that problem. The issue is coworkers interacting with the service animal inappropriately. In situations where coworker interaction with a service animal is causing problems, it may be helpful to educate fellow employees and create policies to prevent issues from arising in the future.
An employer’s first step to handle issues of this nature should be to speak directly with the employee who has the disability and uses the service animal. Employees with disabilities have confidentiality rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and if the employer attempts to educate staff by stating there is a service animal present – it would basically be telling all employees the person using the service animal has a disability. Employers want to have a conversation with the employee first to see what sort of language the employee is comfortable with because an employer does not want to violate ADA confidentiality rules. Alternatively, the employer could offer to allow the employee himself to educate fellow coworkers on how to interact with the service animal. If the employee is comfortable with the employer using the terminology “service animal” or “emotional support animal” then an employer may explicitly use that language to educate staff on appropriate interactions with service animals in the workplace. However, if the employee is not comfortable using the terms “service animal” or “emotional support animal,” then it would be appropriate to use more generic language such as “animal in the workplace.”
One strategy could be to send a company-wide e-mail or memorandum stating that employees may run across an animal(s) in the workplace. The employer’s communication to staff could explain that animals are in the building for a specific purpose and they are not to be interacted with for any reason. Interaction with the service animal includes, but is not limited to: talking, whistling, cooing, barking, petting or asking to pet, praising the animal when it completes its task, tapping your leg or clapping your hands, or giving the animal food or treats. The general rule for coworkers is: when in doubt, if you are distracting or think you can distract the animal – STOP.
Coworkers should also refrain from asking questions or making comments such as:
- “Are you sick?”
- “Good boy or good girl!”
- “Why do you get to have your dog at work?”
- “What kind of dog is that?”
- “I am a great animal person, let me pet the dog”
- “I know you are not supposed to pet, but we’re friends!”
- “Can you show me what tricks it does?”
If the employee okays it, the employer might also provide staff with other resources that discuss appropriate etiquette for interacting with service animals. For example:
- Pacer Center's Manners Unleashed: Etiquette Regarding Service Dogs
- Good Therapy's Supporting People with Service Animals: A Guide to Etiquette
- MossRehab's Disability Etiquette Gone Wrong Video Service Dogs
For more on service animals, feel free to check out more helpful JAN information: