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Paid Pawternity Leave: A Doggone Good Idea

When it comes to employee benefits, the cutting-edge Silicon Valley types usually garner all the publicity for offering the good stuff—on-site health centers, nap pods, free yoga classes, childcare, artisanal coffee bars—the list goes on and on.  

But as cool as all of this might sound, there’s a school of thought that such perks are, on some level, just incentives to keep employees hanging around the workplace longer. After all, why would they want to go home after eight hours, when they have almost everything they need right there at corporate headquarters? 

Meanwhile, some organizations are making news for an out-of-the-ordinary benefit designed to give their people more time away from the office.  

As reported in a recent New York Times article, Minneapolis-based marketing firm Nina Hale has begun offering employees what the company calls “fur-ternity leave,” which allows Nina Hale employees to work from home for a week as they acclimate a new pet.  

New-York based customer data platform provider mParticle grants two full weeks of paid leave to employees who adopt rescue dogs.  

Then there’s Mars Petcare, which provides employees with 10 hours of paid leave to tend to a new pet (of course they do!). The McLean, Va.-based pet food manufacturer also allows workers to bring their fur babies with them to the office after exhausting their paid leave time.  

Some employers might balk at the notion of a benefit like pet leave.  

Consider that Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show just 15% of U.S. employees receiving any kind of paid parental leave to care for their newborn human children. Given such a percentage, it’s safe to say that the average employer isn’t giving much thought to the work that a new pet can entail.  

But as anyone who’s ever brought home a puppy can tell you, it’s not all wagging tails and sloppy kisses. It’s stressful, for owner and pet alike. There will be messes. There will likely be anxiety for an animal adapting to a new environment, and to new people.  

That anxiety can manifest in some destructive ways, and a nervous dog can do a good bit of damage while its human is away at work for nine or 10 hours at a stretch. Any employee with this on their mind at the office is bound to be a little distracted and less productive.  

So, if helping an employee in this situation be their best is as simple as letting them work from home for a few days, then is the concept of pawternity leave really that far-fetched (pun intended)?  

Giving employees the leeway they need to succeed

Allison McMenimen, executive vice president of client services at Nina Hale, was instrumental in bringing the new benefit to the company’s 85 employees. The decision to do so came after a brief span in which a handful of those employees asked to work remotely while they helped a new furry friend adjust to their surroundings.  

“For a lot of people, their pets are their children,” McMenimen told the Times, noting that Nina Hale officially introduced the policy in July. “Our employees are at all different stages of their lives.”  

Indeed, employees have varying benefit needs, and Nina Hale astutely recognized as much. The company also understands that rolling out benefits that don’t fit their employees’ needs aren’t likely to gain much traction. For example, your on-site daycare facility is likely to remain empty if three-quarters of your employee population is in their 20s and childless or on the other end of the spectrum—empty nesters.  

Companies that grasp this reality and create benefits accordingly send a strong signal about their corporate culture, telling employees that their voices will be heard, and that they can expect to enjoy flexibility in their work.  

Those that scoff at the notion of something like pet leave should take note, says Mark Englizian, chair of i4cp’s Total Rewards Leader Board.  

“A decade ago, this might have seemed gimmicky and maybe even downright silly. However, as employers inch closer to solving the puzzle of improved employee engagement, benefits such as pet leave just might serve a legitimate purpose,” says Englizian, a former HR executive whose resume includes stints as CHRO at Walgreen’s and global leader for total rewards at Amazon.  

“Company culture, work environment, trust, and interesting work are the key drivers of employee engagement. Many organizations are finding that mutual flexibility in the employer-employee relationship reaps dividends over the long haul.” 

For companies like Nina Hale, creating this type of benefit came down to simply listening when their employees told them what they need to be happy and productive. And employees require flexibility in how, when, and where they do their work. Smart companies have known this for a long time, and encourage virtual work options as a way to help employees get closer to achieving the ever-elusive work/life balance they crave.  

McMenimen, for one, predicts the demise of perks that—however well-intentioned—wind up taking employees further away from that goal.  

“The idea of offering benefits that just help keep employees at the office, that’s over,” McMenimen notes in the Times.  

We’ll see. It’s tough to see a trend like pet leave expanding beyond smaller organizations. And it’s difficult to envision bigger companies, say, shutting down their onsite gyms or closing up their artisanal coffee bars anytime soon. But maybe it is time to rethink the benefits that tend to keep employees tethered to the office.