‘Pawternity’ leave now offered by employers

Pet-friendly benefits help with employee recruitment, retention, say experts
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/29/2018

It’s the latest in a long line of trendy work perks. Known as “pawternity” leave, some employers are now offering up to a week of paid time off for new pet owners.

In September, craft brewer BrewDog implemented a week-long pawternity leave for employees, according to Tanisha Robinson, CEO of the company’s  Columbus location.

“We know that having a new arrival — whether a puppy or rescue dog — is a big commitment,” she said. “So we wanted to take the stress out of the situation and let our team members take the time they need to help settle a new furry family member in their home.”

While many may scoff at this type of leave, it actually has merit, according to Lianna Titcombe, an Ottawa-based veterinarian.

When puppies enter a home, they are usually two months old and starving for affection, she said.

“They have this socialization window that basically closes by the time they’re 11 or 12 weeks old, so there’s this crucial month when they need to be socialized and meet people,” said Titcombe.

“If those people have that time to be home with their puppy — training them, socializing them, and getting them comfortable with the world — we’re going to have less of those fear-aggressive adult dogs that are out there biting children.”

Allowing employees the opportunity and time to properly train their puppies could mean broader benefits for both organizations and the greater community, she said.

“When the general public hears it, the instant reaction is going to be ‘That’s kind of crazy,’” said Titcombe. “(But) if we’re going to attract and keep the good employees — the ones who are really motivated, innovative thinkers — if we’re not offering these things, they’re not going to want to work for us. So I think we have to keep up with the new generation, otherwise we’re going to be left behind.”

‘Up-and-coming benefit’

The implementation of pawternity leave reveals the value today’s recruits place on pet-friendly workplaces, said Deborah McPhee, an HR professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

“I absolutely think it’s the up-and-coming benefit,” she said.

“When you’re competing for resources, what is it that you can do that is different than another company? Because you’re all trying to attract them, you’re all offering sign-on bonuses,” said McPhee. “I’m a little cautious about it, but I think that we have to do what we can to attract people.”

Pawternity leave appears to be a natural extension of a pet-friendly workplace policy, and could allow workers a more realistic opportunity to adopt a pet of their own, she said.

“You’ve allowed the benefit for them to come in with the dog so, to me, it makes total sense that you’ve got to allow for people to be able to get the dog ready.”

A majority of Canadian households do include a pet, according to Titcombe.

“We’re not talking about a very small minority of people here,” she said. “The human-animal bond now is really strong.”

The barrier between work and home continues to lessen, and pet-friendly policies are included in that, said Sue Jacques, a professionalism expert in Calgary.

“It’s a trend and I don’t think it’s going to go away,” she said. “It’s up to leadership to start the conversation at that level and then be inclusive with everyone.”

“Pets at work can really cause people problems — they really can,” said Jacques. “But they can also create such beautiful, loving environments.”

As to whether this kind of leave should be extended to owners of other animals, dogs are unique in that they require training to refrain from urinating in the house, said Titcombe.

Cats also have a “socialization window” that closes around nine weeks, but they are a much more independent species and do not require the same amount of hands-on care that a new puppy would, she said.

If available, workers should strive to use the pawternity perk responsibly, said Jacques.

“You need to be responsible for the timing of that,” she said. “Maybe you can do that around the time of a holiday or vacation or long weekend.”

Becoming pet-friendly

Turning a corporate office into a haven for pets should never be a decision made lightly, said Jacques.

“Where does the line get drawn? That’s the question that business owners need to think about before they bring one pet into the office environment.”

A company’s credibility needs to be taken into consideration, as does the perception of the corporate brand in terms of the professionalism such a move would portray to customers and staff alike, she said.

The size, breed and age of dog allowed at the office may need to be written into policy, said Jacques.

“Is an office the appropriate place to train a puppy? These are all things that people probably don’t think about when they think about bringing their pets to work.”

Dogs would need to go through a test to ensure they fit, said McPhee.

“We have person-organization fit, and now we have dog-organization fit.”

Prior to the implementation of any policy, staff should be surveyed to discover potential allergies or religious reasoning that would prevent their interaction with pets, said McPhee.

“You really need to find out how people really feel about this in general.”

And even if a positive result is found, employers would be advised to start small — offering a subsidy for doggy daycare or dog walkers, for example — as they would never want to relinquish a benefit after offering it, she said.

An on-site doggy daycare could also be an option offered prior to bringing pets directly into the office, said McPhee, noting flex benefits could be on the table if a pet subsidy is the preferred approach.

“If you’re actually allowing them to bring the pet in, where do you stop?”

“It’s the whole thing about equity. People want to be treated fairly. How do you equate it?” she said. “If I’m going to have pet-friendly policies, do I have one that addresses elder care and child care?”

“I see lots of problems.”

Legal concerns

While pressure may be mounting in terms of recruitment and retention policies, there is no obligation for an employer to introduce a pet-friendly work policy, said Thomas Gorsky, an employment lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz in Toronto.

If there was pressure from a large swath of employees, an employer could feel a “moral obligation” to implement one, but prior consultation with the entire workforce would be advisable to ensure there are no allergies or psychological phobias present, he said.

An employee’s medical issues would take precedence over an optional policy, said Gorsky.

“If there was no way to segregate the animal to address that particular individual’s sensitivity,  while there is no precedent, I think the legal conclusion that you would draw would be pretty clear that you would need to accommodate the employee who has a sensitivity, as opposed to a majority-rules type of approach,” he said.

“If an individual was adamant that they had an allergy to a cat or a dog, and that it would cause significant medical problems, I don’t think I would push that further in terms of trying to get medical documentation for that.”

Nervousness of pets alone would “fall short of something that needed to be accommodated legally,” and would then come down to an employer decision, said Gorsky.

Still, contemporary workplaces are leaning towards “friendly” workplaces that offer a variety of perks for millennial employees, including games and entertainment, he said.

“I could certainly see a pet-friendly workplace being an extension of that ethos.”

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