At Mars Inc., every day is a take-your-dog-to-work day. The food manufacturer allows employees to regularly bring their dogs into its three office locations in Canada and provides several benefits to pet owners. The company’s headquarters in Bolton, Ont., have a courtyard where dogs can run and play, and employees can take eight hours of paid time off a year to care for new pets or go to veterinary appointments.
Employees appreciate the benefits because many of them consider their pets as family members, says Chris Hamilton, president of Mars Canada. And the company, he adds, reaps the benefits of lower turnover. “Productivity goes up the longer our associates stay, because we’re not constantly trying to train new Mars associates with how we do business and how they do their jobs because they’ve been here for a long time.”
Benefits of a pet-friendly workplace
Employees who bring their dogs to work tend to report fewer absences because they have a healthy work-life balance, says Hamilton. “People need to be focused at work to get their job done. If we can give them one more opportunity to help them manage their work and life integration by bringing their four-legged friends to work so they don’t have to worry about that piece of their life, then we find they are happier and more productive at work because they’re not worried about what’s going on [with their pet] without their supervision.”
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The general atmosphere at work is also more positive when dogs are present, says Hamilton. “We find animals in the workplace actually lower the stress level within the office in general. People are happier coming to work. They are active and more collaborative.”
While there’s little information on how many Canadian employers allow animals in the workplace, it is becoming more common for people to bring pets, specifically dogs, to work, says Barbara Bowes, president at Legacy Bowes Group, a human resources consulting firm in Winnipeg. She suggests the trend is likely due to research that shows pet-friendly workplaces reduce stress and improve teamwork and co-operation.
Issues to consider
As a producer of pet products, Mars has an obvious incentive to be more open to employees’ pet-related needs. But for other employers considering a change, they should pause and consider the potential issues that could arise at a pet-friendly workplace, says Thomas Gorsky, an employment lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz LLP in Toronto. Among the concerns is the need to investigate whether any employee is allergic to or scared of dogs.
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Companies with employees who have a phobia could ask them if they’re comfortable with trying to adapt to having dogs in the workplace, says Gorsky.
“But I wouldn’t do anything beyond that to pressure that person to agree. If the person reports they’re phobic to the animal, it raises human rights considerations as a phobia. That could be regarded as a disability, and if you were to disregard that disability and insist on bringing the animal into the premises, you’d be running the risk of a human rights violation.”
Some companies with certain types of work environments may also find it impractical to allow pets on their premises, says Gorsky. That includes workplaces with heavy machinery and restaurants and facilities involved in food preparation and packaging. Gorsky notes some landlords may also prohibit pets in their lease agreements, so employers should ensure there’s no such clause before introducing a pet-friendly policy.
Since Mars prizes its pet-friendly policies, it makes an effort to ensure there’s no ban on dogs at its offices, says Hamilton. “We work hard with management companies to alter the policy because we do believe having pets in the office space is just better for our associates. . . . We try very hard to get exceptions and make it a part of our lease agreement.”
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Employers that decide to adopt a pet-friendly workplace should also ensure they have a strong formal policy in place before introducing the change, says Bowes. “You need to have a policy on how you’re going to manage a complaint. How are you going to manage the damages if the dog pees or poos on a couch or rug? How are you going to handle those kinds of things?”
At Mars, employees must abide by certain rules before they can bring their dogs to work, says Hamilton. They include signing up in advance for the privilege; making sure their pet has its vaccines; displaying a sign on their desk so people are aware that a dog is present; and ensuring the animal is on a leash and is well-behaved. “Lots of our associates set up little dog pens around their work stations, so they have a little off-leash area by their desk . . . but the animals are contained in them,” says Hamilton.
According to Hamilton, the company hasn’t run into any major issues since it became a pet-friendly workplace. Still, management does make a point to speak to owners if their dog gets a bit too excited. “We haven’t had any instances where we’ve had to be extreme in our discipline,” says Hamilton. “But people know, if the animal is disturbing the work environment, then they’re probably better left at doggy daycare or at home with another relative because we do have a workplace to run as well.”
Having an open courtyard where dogs can work off their energy also helps the owners manage rowdy behaviour, says Hamilton.
Trying it out
As for employers that would like to adopt a pet-friendly workplace but are still hesitant to make the change, Bowes suggests they could try a pilot project and evaluate the policy after a few months to see if it’s working. “Overall, people like well-behaved pets, but you have to make sure your workplace is one of those workplaces and not just assume everyone should welcome the pet regardless of their feelings.”
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Employers that already have pet-friendly policies in place should also inform potential job candidates, says Hamilton. At Mars, people who apply for a job with the company learn about its unique policy during the interview process.
“A lot of times, we want them to experience our environment,” says Hamilton. “So we bring them to the Bolton campus so they can see what it looks like.”
So far, according to Hamilton, Mars’ policy has been successful in attracting candidates with many specifically applying for jobs because of the benefit. “It’s amazing how unique and positive the bring-your-pet-to-work policy is and how appealing that is for the right employee.”
Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.
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