Legal lowdown: Bereavement leave for pets

?Most businesses wouldn't hesitate to give employees time off to mourn the death of a family member or close friend. But what happens if that loved one is a pet?

This question has been gathering a lot of interest because of a recent story about a grieving woman starting a campaign for bereavement leave when employees lose their pets. This followed her being refused bereavement leave and being sacked when she was too upset to go to work after her dog died.

Currently there is no legal requirement for employers to allow time off work when an employee's pet dies. Workers currently have no right to any form of bereavement leave at all. Permitting time off after a bereavement is down to the discretion of the employer and it is perfectly acceptable for such requests to be refused.

That said, many employers do allow people who have suffered a loss to take some time away from work. For example, an employer may have a company policy that specifies who employees can take bereavement leave in relation to (such as spouses, children or parents) and for how long this will be permitted.

The closest the law currently gets to providing any form of bereavement leave is the right to take time off for dependants. From the first day of employment, employees can take ‘reasonable’ time away from work to deal with emergencies that involve a ‘dependant’, which can include illness or death but does not include time taken to grieve. Despite this the legislation clearly defines dependants as spouses, children or someone who depends upon the individual for care.

How companies will respond to the loss of a pet will, therefore, depend on the views of management and the demands of the business. Some managers may be sympathetic and willing to grant time off, while others may be less so. Both approaches are legally permissible but, regardless of personal preference, employers should consider how the absence will affect operations.

The company may not have the capacity to allow the employee to be off that day, especially if there is no-one available to cover their duties. Additionally, if it was to permit one person to take the time off this could result in the floodgates opening and colleagues expecting the same treatment. The issue in this situation would be how far it is willing to let these requests go; while managers may be open to some time off to process the death of a cat or dog, they may be less so following the loss of a goldfish.

But employers should not underestimate the impact the death of a pet can have on employees and how poor management of the situation can affect the employment relationship. For many losing a pet can be almost as painful as losing a close family member. Immediately following the loss it is wise for employers to consider how much work an employee is going to be able to feasibly do if they do come in. Not only are they unlikely to work to full capacity, they may also prove distracting to their colleagues, especially if they are visibly upset.

Although employers reserve the right to discipline individuals who are not working to the required standard, they should tread carefully. Employees who have just lost their pet are likely to respond poorly to this and may not perform as well as a result. Imposing a zero-tolerance approach may also be received badly by the workforce as a whole. Employers that respond well to the individual circumstances of their staff will foster stronger employee relations, something that can be crucial in maintaining productivity and loyalty.

To this end, employers may consider letting an employee take some time away to deal with this situation; either by permitting a day of annual leave, allowing a small period of unpaid leave, or expecting the time taken to be worked at a later date. If the individual needs to work on the day of the loss employers could let them take the following day instead as a compromise. If a form of bereavement leave is to be provided it is highly advisable that eligibility for it, and how long employees can take off, be clearly outlined within company policies. It is also a good idea to refer staff to any additional assistance the company offers, such as an employee assistance programme, to help them better cope with their grief.

Although change is on the horizon for bereavement, with parental bereavement leave becoming a legal requirement from next year, it is unlikely that providing this option for pets will also be mandatory any time soon. It will remain entirely in the hands of employers and they will need to weigh up the potential implications for the business.

Kate Palmer is associate director of advisory at Peninsula