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Help! My New Office Is Full Of Dogs, And I’m Allergic

Dog-friendly offices can be a big stress relief for pet owners, but if you have allergies, the perk can feel like the pits. How to deal?

Help! My New Office Is Full Of Dogs, And I’m Allergic
[Photo: Flickr user Sean Hagen]

Many people would love to bring their furry friends to work with them each day; it’s been proven to reduce stress and boost morale, plus it means lunchtime walks and not worrying about separation anxiety.

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But what if you have allergies and you’ve unknowingly just accepted a dream job in a dog-filled office?

This week, career expert Alison Green (a.k.a. Ask A Manager) helps a new employee cope with a hairy situation.

Thanks to your amazing advice, I was able to land a fantastic job with a big raise after years of stagnant dead-end work. My first day, I walked into the office . . . and it was full of dogs. They have a dog-friendly office, which was never advertised or communicated during the hiring process.

I’m allergic to dogs, VERY allergic. Within 10 minutes of arriving at work, my eyes are red, itchy, and watering, my nose stuffs up, and I get a headache from my swollen sinuses. This is what happens when I’m on medication! If I skip the meds, I break out in hives, start to wheeze, and I run the risk of my throat swelling closed. I went to my doctor, who referred me to a specialist. I’m already on the strongest meds they give out, and they said as long as I “expose myself” to allergens, this will keep happening and might get worse over time.

I tried to work with my company to fix this: They put me in the far corner away from the majority of the pooches where I’m near a door I can prop open, they have a company that cleans biweekly, and they let me work from home one day a week. The nature of my job demands that I be in the office at least four days a week, I really have no wiggle room. Even working from home one day a week has been a stretch and caused some negative feelings on my team, even though they hear me sneezing every 20 minutes when I’m there!

It’s been two months, and, while I love the work, love the company, and love my coworkers . . . I’m miserable. I’ve considered looking for a new job, but every job I’ve seen in my field has a “dog-friendly” office. I’m at a loss–their dog-friendly office isn’t ME-friendly. What can I do?!


Ugh, yes, this is the other side of benefits that some people love.

Lots of people are thrilled at the idea of a pet-friendly office, and lots of pet-friendly offices operate successfully. But they really only work in the long term if there are effective plans for accommodating people with allergies, as well as people who are afraid of dogs or are just not comfortable around them.

In a larger workspace, that can mean having pet-free floors. In a small office, that might not be feasible. (And as you can see from this story about someone with allergies who worked in Amazon’s dog-friendly offices, being on a pet-free floor didn’t quite work as smoothly as it was supposed to.)

Working from home can be a solution, but, as in your case, that’s not feasible with every job.

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The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with a qualifying disability if doing so won’t impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. But what’s reasonable to ask, and what’s an undue hardship?

To get an answer, I consulted two awesome employment attorneys: Donna Ballman, author of the awesome Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired, and Bryan Cavanaugh.

Donna and Bryan both agreed that, based on your description, the allergy is likely to be covered as a disability under the ADA (which covers “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities”).

So if the law covers you, what does your employer have to do in response? Bryan says:

To its credit, the employer has already been interacting with this employee to see if there is anything reasonable the employer can do to help the employee overcome the limitations and allow her to do her job. The efforts the employer has offered so far–moving the employee’s desk by door, allowing the employee to work from home one day a week, cleaning the office biweekly–are nice but they have not solved the problem. Therefore, technically, neither the employee nor the employer has identified an “accommodation” yet. An accommodation is a modification that allows the employee to perform all of the essential functions of his or her job. That is not happening yet, since none of the ideas mentioned has worked.

So realistically, what else might you try?

Donna suggests working with your doctor to see what she suggests:

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If there are allergy shots or other medical solutions, great. But they may also be able to suggest some reasonable accommodations you haven’t thought of. Questions I’d ask the doctor are things like:

  1. Is there a spray or something that can be put on the dogs that would keep them from spreading allergens?
  2. How far away do you need to be for you to be safe from the dogs?
  3. Would any kind of filter or mask work for you?

If the doctor can come up with some reasonable accommodations you can ask for that would address your allergy, the employer has to either grant the accommodation, engage in the interactive process with your doctor and you to come up with an alternative accommodation, or demonstrate an undue hardship.

If there is no accommodation that would allow you to work in the presence of dogs, then the other question to ask of your employer is whether the dogs are an accommodation for anyone else’s disability. (The ADA also covers emotional support dogs and service dogs, so you have a real pickle if the dogs are there due to disabilities of coworkers.) If not, then a reasonable accommodation might be to ask that the dogs be kept at home or in a doggy day care. It won’t make you popular with your dog-loving coworkers, but an accommodation like that is probably reasonable under the law.

Bryan agrees:

One accommodation that would work would be banning all the dogs (except service dogs) from the office. That is something the employer needs to consider seriously. An accommodation is not reasonable and does not need to be offered if it would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. Usually that means an unreasonable expense to the employer. But here, there would not be a direct expense of banning dogs from the office. Rather, the employer should consider “the impact of the accommodation upon the operation of the facility, including the impact on the ability of other employees to perform their duties and the impact on the facility’s ability to conduct business.” Banning the dogs would lower morale, but it would not appear to harm the business itself or the business’s operations. This is not a veterinary clinic where it is necessary to have dogs in the workplace. Although we do not know what the business does, the business can presumably operate without animals in the workplace. So while banning dogs may be a drastic change and hurt morale, the employer must consider doing this in order to comply with the ADA.

Whether an accommodation is reasonable and whether an accommodation would present an undue hardship are fact-intensive inquiries. We do not know enough facts to say definitely one way or another whether the employer is required to ban all dogs (besides service dogs).

But I suspect you really don’t want to be the person who causes your coworkers to lose a benefit that most of them probably love. That comes with its own set of issues.

Bryan also suggests:

From an HR perspective, the employer should continue to interact with the employee to see if some other modification would solve this problem. For instance, the employer should consider moving the employee to another remote location within the office, moving the employee to his or her own personal office, purchasing a special air purifier, and rearranging the office such that only employees with low-dander dogs are near this employee. If none of those work, then this employer could very well be facing the choice of (1) banning dogs from the office, or (2) telling the employee to deal with the situation as is, which sounds like it would effectively make the employee resign due to health concerns.

If the employer faced that choice and chose option #2, the employee could file an EEOC charge and then take the employer to court and litigate the issue, whereas option #1 would have constituted a reasonable accommodation that the employer was required to implement.

So again, ugh.

If I were in your shoes, I’d go back to your manager and HR and say this:

I appreciate you working with me on moving my desk and setting up telecommuting one day a week. However, I’m finding that I’m still suffering severe allergy symptoms, and my doctor tells me that they may worsen with increased exposure to the dogs here. So I need a different medical accommodation to be able to do my job, and want to talk with you about what’s possible.

But if none of the lighter-touch accommodations work, this may come down to a philosophical decision on your part about whether you want to push for the dogs to be removed, or whether you’d rather look for a job that either doesn’t come with dogs or that is set up to allow you to avoid them more easily (by telecommuting or finding a company large enough to give you an office far away from the dander).

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This isn’t an easy one.

What do others think?

This article originally appeared on Ask A Manger and is reprinted with permission.

If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.