Q: I have an unusual problem involving a long-term employee of my firm and a recent change in his behavior. Last month he started bringing his dog, a Jack Russell terrier, to the office. He claims the dog is an "emotional support animal" and even has a printed certificate from an organization called ESARA, or Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. This employee has always been very quiet and does a great job maintaining our CRM system. In fact, he is the only one at the firm who truly understands how to use it. When I asked what medical condition is being helped by the "support animal" he cited HIPAA regulations that protect the privacy of his medical information.
My problem is that I suspect the "support animal" moniker is a ruse. He has had the dog for a long time and never mentioned this issue before, nor has he brought the animal to the office. He recently moved to a new apartment complex that does not allow pets, and I think the "support animal" registration came about so he could keep the dog.
I like dogs in general, and this one is quite well behaved. He doesn't bark and pretty much stays in a basket in the employee's cubicle. The employee takes him outside regularly, and there have been no complaints from co-workers. Clients rarely notice the dog since the employee works in a part of the office that clients do not visit. Those clients who do meet the dog either ignore him or take a great interest in petting him. He is a very lovable dog.
But I am concerned that there may be others who might want to bring their pets to work, too. I think the employee acted unethically by springing this masquerade without getting permission ahead of time. Will I be doing the right thing if I tell him to stop bringing his pet to work?
A: There are a number of small financial services firms that are pet-friendly — most, if not all, by choice rather than having it forced on them, as in your case. Certainly, the employee erred by not asking permission beforehand. It may be that he thought you would deny his request so he chose forgiveness over permission. Now that the deed is done and he has provided documentation (easily obtained over the internet) that the dog is registered as a support animal, any challenges that you make could have serious consequences. Are you willing to lose a valuable and skilled employee? What happens to the maintenance of your CRM system if the employee quits? Are you willing to litigate the matter in court if the employee fights any restrictions? Will you win if he charges you are not providing sufficient accommodations for his disability and that disability is, in fact, real?
You should review your employee Code of Ethics. It is possible that there are provisions requiring employees to behave with integrity or to act fairly with co-workers. This would allow you to explore the circumstances surrounding the appearance of the animal without notice to you ahead of time and help you to resolve your suspicions regarding the legitimacy of the "support" designation.
That same Code of Ethics would guide your own behavior in dealing with the situation. You have an opportunity to develop clear policies on whether pets are welcome at your workplace, the medical and/or other documentation required to gain permission for a support animal and set reasonable guidelines on the types of animals permitted. No support snakes or monkeys, for example. While you cannot require your employee to reveal confidential medical information, you can ask for a letter from a medical professional indicating that the support animal is beneficial and justified. Consider asking this employee to help develop the new policy along with his co-workers. Peer pressure may encourage him to comply with the policy — even if it is after-the-fact.
In the meantime, if the dog doesn't seem to be causing any issues and the employee continues to do an important job competently, you may want to let sleeping dogs lie.
Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question. All submissions will be treated confidentially.