Benefits Packages Now Include ... Pets?

For those who think the workplace is going to the dogs, you are right - and to the cats, and to the birds, too.

With the tightest labor market in years, companies are rolling out a smorgasbord of benefits - from dry-cleaning pickup to take-home dinners - in order to attract and retain top talent.

The latest perk: pet care.

American Management Systems, an information consulting firm in Fairfax, Va., for example, picks up the kennel tab for workers sent out of town unexpectedly.

Another company, Synbiotics Corp. in San Diego, a supplier of animal health products, pays a portion of the annual veterinary bills for employees' pets.

And a handful of companies even let workers bring their canine companions to the office.

"It's just another way to help people get some balance in their lives," says Tyler Phillips, president of the Partnership Group, a work-life consulting firm in Bluebell, Pa. which allows pets in the office.

On any given day, at least three dogs accompany their owners to work, estimates Mr. Phillips, who occasionally brings his Dalmatian, Lombard.

"All in all, it's turned out to be a great policy," he says, adding that dogs are held to a strict "three-spills and you're out" rule.

While laughable to some, companies and workers say pet policies help build loyalty. And a little "fur therapy" during the workday, they say, reduces stress and increases productivity.

Autodesk, a software company in San Rafael, Calif., has let employees bring their pets to work since its founding in 1982. Currently 100 of its 1,100 employees take up the offer each day.

"It's a big benefit in terms of morale," says spokeswoman Kathy Tom-Engle. "In terms of work performance, people stay longer." Some people, she adds, decide to take or keep a job at Autodesk because of the policy. Jennifer Reidy, a marketing employee at Autodesk, has been bringing Bailey, a golden retriver puppy, with her to work since he was eight weeks old.

"It's a really nice benefit. A couple times a day, I'll take a break and scratch his belly," says Ms. Reidy, who clocks close to 10 hours a day at her keyboard. "It's also nice to have a driving partner for the commute, although we can't ride in the carpool lane."

Almost all the pets that come to Autodesk are dogs (cats tend to wander.) The company says it hasn't had any problems, and it maintains a strict set of rules:

Dogs must be kept on a leash inside the company; cafeteria and bathrooms are off limits; no dogs in meetings; no fleas please; three accidents and you're out; and no loud, repetitive barking or eating other employees' food.

Dogs who don't abide, Ms. Tom-Engle says, "aren't asked back."

Despite the perks, in today's litigious environment, plenty of companies see such policies as a lawsuit waiting to happen. "I would be on the side of those who say, 'Keep your pets at home,' " says Barry Lawrence of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Robert Sivek, co-owner of the Meetinghouse Companies in Elmhurst, Ill., has been bringing his Lhasa apso, Max, to work for the past three years.

Still he has no intention of extending the offer to the company's 32 employees. "I think it might get a little crazy," he says.

Max, for example, had a "funny habit" of untying people's shoes when he was a puppy, Mr. Sivek concedes. And during a meeting, he once chewed the tags off the accountant's briefcase. "Of course we replaced it," he says.

Other companies have tried to downplay the attention such policies have brought. American Management Systems in Fairfax, Va., for example, reimburses the cost for pet sitting or kennel care if an employee has an unexpected business trip. The company, however, insists, it has "a lot more interesting" benefits it offers employees.

Still, many say pets could rule in tomorrow's workplace. "We do a lot of pet services in all 30 of our offices," says Andrea Arena, president of Two Places At One Time, an Atlanta-based corporate errand service, including walking dogs, house-breaking puppies, and teaching dogs to fetch.

And pets, she adds, have come to mean just about anything: dogs, cats, fish, snakes, and even iguanas.

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