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Assistance animals: what HR needs to know

Image: Business Disability Forum

New guidance on how to support disabled employees who need to bring animals to work has been released by disability inclusion organisation the Business Disability Forum (BDF).

Bela Gor, head of legal at BDF, said HR should know how to make reasonable adjustments for support animals.

She told HR magazine: “We know that animals can offer vital assistance and support to many disabled people in the workplace. For employers, however, there are legitimate concerns about the impact of different animals on other employees and the wider business.”

The guide explains the different types of animals that many disabled people rely on, including assistance animals, guide dogs and emotional support animals.

The guides also cover what employers need to consider when making decisions around animals in the workplace.

It says in most workplaces, it will be reasonable for employers to let an employee bring in their guide dog or assistance animal, provided the animal is quiet, well-behaved and not disruptive and the workplace is a safe environment for the animal.

Read more: 'Reasonable' adjustments just aren't reasonable

It also considers what to do if another colleague has an allergy to an animal or if an employee has an unusual emotional support animal. 

The guidance states that cultural or religious objections to certain animals are not usually enough to justify refusing entry to the animal.

Gor added that employers should consult colleagues about support animals to ensure any compromises that are needed can be reached.

She said: “For employers, the biggest pitfall is often a lack of consultation with team members who are likely to come into contact with the animal. 

“No one should be surprised by finding an animal in the workplace. Before making any decisions, employers need to properly consult with staff so they are aware of any allergies or phobias.  

“Employers also need to think about any services in the building that may be outsourced, such as security or catering. If staff in these areas are not trained, they might refuse access to the colleague with the assistance animal.”

Employers must educate themselves to avoid indirect discrimination against colleagues with assistance animals, according to Chris Theobald, senior policy, public affairs and campaigns manager at charity Guide Dogs.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Too many guide dog owners continue to face discrimination because they have their guide dog with them. What’s more is that only one in four people of working age with sight loss are in employment, so it is vital employers do more to support colleagues with a vision impairment. 

“Businesses and other employers must have a good understanding of equality legislation to make sure they’re meeting their legal obligations, and ensure staff are fully trained to recognise assistance dogs. 

“Importantly, employers must remember that a guide dog is not a pet, they are highly trained to carry out their role. It’s crucial that they are not distracted in any way, and people should always ask the owner before interacting with the dog.”

Read more: Workplace adjustments – are we getting it right?