Okay, this one may be a little controversial but hear me out. And I want to be clear: this is not about service animals, who are a significant part of our community and should be respected for the incredible jobs they do.
… but I’m so glad I haven’t had to deal with those “bring your pets to work” days in a while. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone has great pets, but it’s the way companies use our furry loved ones as a bandaid to cover bigger wounds like employee burnout and low morale that really sticks in my craw.
A couple of years ago, I was contracted with a company that initiated a sudden, devastating series of layoffs. Employee morale quickly sank. The powers that be explained the decision was financial. The remaining staff felt betrayed by the lack of transparency, and it didn’t help that those who were laid off were largely members of underrepresented groups. The company advised that more layoffs were coming but they would be staggered over several days, and that accumulated PTO would only be paid out if legally required by an employee’s state. People were expected to live with the threat of losing their jobs, through no fault of their own, for the next several days. People were upset and made their complaints known in Slack.
Someone suggested they be allowed to bring in their dogs from home to help ease anxiety or to have one of those pet adoption organizations bring in some dogs. The CEO agreed that would be a good idea and the Slack room erupted: “What if instead of letting people bring in dogs we paid out peoples’ PTO in all states, not just [redacted]?” “How much will it cost to bring in dogs when you could just pay out PTO?” “We don’t have money for salaries but we have money for dogs?” Other complaints dealt with the fact that some people dislike dogs, are allergic, or are afraid of dogs. Dog-owners tried to brush aside those concerns by saying their dog was a good dog and didn’t bark, or that the dog would stay at their desk, but unless your pet is a service animal, those reassurances aren’t enough.
That particular office environment was almost completely open. Staff worked at long tables with no cubicle or any kind of wall separating them. Some had standing desks or computer stands that provided boundaries, but the space was open, supposedly to encourage collaboration and thought. It often led to distraction. Bringing dogs into that environment would increase distraction because you cannot always predict how pets will react in new environments with new people. Some may become anxious, others confrontational. Your dog is an angel at home because she knows she’s safe. At a busy office, with all kinds of people plus other strange dogs, anything can happen.
(Also when someone tells you they’ve had a traumatizing experience with an animal, it’s very insensitive to try to force your pet on them. They’re not asking for immersive therapy just because your pet is the most adorable in the world, according to you).
The idea to bring in dogs was quickly nixed, but trying to soothe company morale with a day of free-ranging animals was insulting and far too little. At this company, there had been other stress-relief pet days where an adoption agency brought in puppies. The doggies were gathered in a single, large room, and people could go by at their leisure for the cuteness. That’s fine and lovely, and I even went once but the room was too crowded so I left before having a chance to get some furry snuggles in. I like the idea of puppy day, but if your company sees a need to make this a recurring event because your employees are burning out, perhaps address what’s causing the burn-out instead of slapping cute paws on it.
Bring in puppies, kittens, baby pigs, or even a whole zoo. Sure, shake up the monotony of work, but pay attention to employee concerns. Provide fair and equitable wages. It’s not enough to boast of your diverse hiring practices if you cannot retain staff. You’ve hired people from marginalized identities, but who are in leadership positions? What are your promotion practices? What does workflow look like? What is your company doing to make sure you don’t have to use baby animals to keep your employees from revolting? Pets at work are a form of pain management. Leadership has to stop treating the symptoms of employee dissatisfaction and fix the cause of it.
I grew up with dogs as pets: Honey, Russet, Cagney, Lacey, Giancarlo (names changed to protect cybersecurity) and my family’s “weenie” dog Queenie recently passed away from old age. I like dogs. They’re cute and funny. I don’t like inconsiderate dog people… or jobs that bring in pets as stress relief when they could make institutional changes to help benefit their employees.