This week is National Assistance Dog Week. Assistance Dogs in the Workplace perform practical assistive tasks for their disabled partners, to avoid them being at a disadvantage and to enable them to be independent, or provide guiding skills in the case of blind or partially sighted people.
For employers the issues around assistance dogs in the workplace comes down to one of reasonable adjustments. The Equalities Act 2010 and Disability Discrimination Act 1995 require employers to make reasonable adjustments in order to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. A disabled person should not be put at a disadvantage due to their assistance dog. For example, an applicant for a job who is accompanied at interview by their assistance dog should not be treated differently in the consideration of their ability to do the job than candidates without assistance dogs. The over-riding obligation of the employer is to objectively assess the candidate’s ability to perform the duties involved in the job that they are applying for.
If you appoint a candidate who has an assistance dog, there may be some changes that you need to consider making in the workplace. It’s reasonable to assume that assistance dogs in the workplace
- will not wander freely around the premises
- will sit or lie quietly on the floor next to its owner and are trained to go to the toilet on command and so are unlikely to foul in a public place
- are instantly recognisable by the harness or identifying dog jacket they wear
Allergy to dogs is sometimes given as a reason for not welcoming assistance dogs in the workplace. In the UK approximately 8% adults are sensitive to dog allergens, while it is estimated that up to 4 times as many people are allergic to pollen and house dust mites. Where a clear allergy risk to a specific individual can be objectively identified as the employer you need to take steps to reduce this risk, for example by accommodating the two people separately. But refusal to accept assistance dogs in the workplace based on the possibility that other people ‘may’ be allergic is unlikely to be classed as a reasonable or proportionate response.
Assistance dogs in the workplace undergo expert training over a period of many months in order to ensure that they are entirely under control at all times and that they won’t constitute any sort of risk or nuisance to anyone. For example, assistance dogs in the workplace are trained to lie quietly under the table when their handler is working. The dog’s standards are assessed in a variety of situations over a period of many months before they are considered ready to be qualified as assistance dogs in the workplace. They pass various tests relating not only to their standards of obedience, but also proving that the dogs do perform the practical assistive tasks that their handler requires. The other point to consider when you have assistance dogs in the workplace is giving instructions to staff who are at the other end of the spectrum; those who are huge dog lovers and want to ‘play’ with the dog. You need to ask your employee about their assistance dog, and how they need colleagues to behave around their dog so that they don’t distract the dog from its support role for your employee. A reasonable list of how they are expected to behave towards their canine work colleague will go a long way to avoiding confusion and distress.
To cope with someone’s fear of the dog at work it will be essential to listen to the person’s fears and try to work out some strategies to minimise contact between the dog and the person who is afraid. Mediation between the dog’s handler and the frightened employee to work out a reasonable compromise would be one very practical way of trying to achieve this.
Other employee’s fear of dogs is, of course, an important consideration that you must address if raised and the solution will not be straight forward. The law is clear, you may not discriminate against an employee who has an assistance dog, but the law is also clear that if someone raises a grievance with you, maybe because they are now frightened of a dog in the workplace, you need to listen to those grievances.
You may need to make adjustments to the working area that your new employee and their dog will occupy. You may need to review access routes to the work area and ensure there is enough room for the dog to be comfortable near its owner whilst your employee is working.
If you have an issue with assistance dogs in the workplace give us a call now on 01706 565332. We can help you think through the best way forward.
Metis HR is a professional HR Consultancy based in the North West of England supporting clients across the country. We specialise in providing outsourced HR services to small and medium-sized businesses. Call us now on 01706 565332 to discuss how we may help you.