The workplace has changed irrevocably after the global pandemic. Technology has allowed people to work remotely, encouraging employers to adopt more flexible work from home and hybrid options. With these widespread changes, some employers are having to re-imagine what it means to work in the office again.

Tech and remote tech have presented plenty of new challenges for HR managers, not least of which is supporting employee mental health. WFH allowed the comfort of a familiar work environment and, for some, the companionship of an emotional support animal. But how do you deal with a request from a staff member to bring a dog into the office?

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that employers must make a ‘reasonable accommodation’ for employees and job applicants with disabilities. Accommodations include changes to how an employee can perform a job that does not cause undue hardship to the individual.

An ESA can be a necessary companion for a staff member in managing a psychological problem or stress and anxiety. If the animal assists with a recognized disability, the employer must handle the ESA request like any other request made under the ADA.

The first thing is to verify the authenticity of the request by checking that the staff member has an emotional support animal letter.

There is no compulsory registration requirement or central organization, so it’s easy to sidestep this or falsify a letter. An official ESA letter should have the signature of an authorized professional and carry an expiry date.

What’s the Difference Between an ESA and a Service Animal?

According to the ADA, a service animal has trained to perform specific tasks. An obvious example is a guide dog for a visually impaired person.

An Emotional Support Animal does not undergo training to perform a specific task or function. Management of these animals in a workplace can be challenging.

They are usually companion animals that a mental health professional has deemed helpful and supportive, necessary for someone with a mental or emotional disability. They provide a calming effect or comfort to their owner.

Usually, an ESA is often a dog but could be a cat or any other animal. In 2018, United Airlines famously refused passage for an emotional support peacock, and other airlines have also started to crack down on ESA requests.

Practical Management

An HR professional’s responsibilities are to all their employees, not just the individual with an ESA. Can you have a dog or cat in an office where you have other staff allergic to pet fur and dander? What about their rights to a healthy working environment?

HR Managers should handle the request for an ESA like any other under the ADA. Consider the accommodation but ask the question. Could you provide the support required for different workplace changes that cause less disruption to other people?

Denying a request needs careful consideration and a robust risk assessment.

Final Thoughts

There is no automatic requirement under the ADA to allow an employee to bring an ESA into the workplace. Still, employers must handle a request to do so just like any other made under the accommodation provisions of the legislation. A dog is perhaps easier to manage than other species in a working environment, but remember, all employees have rights, not just the one making the request.