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When petting at work is OK Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002

Sandy Fekete doesn’t worry when pressure builds at her marketing communications firm, Fekete + Co. She has a CEO — chief emotional officer, that is — to ease the tension.

“She has a very calming influence,” explains Fekete, speaking of her 3-year-old golden retriever, Colby, who accompanies her to her offices in the Busch Corporate Center each day. “She knows when stress levels are high, and she’ll just come and put her chin on your leg, even in the middle of a meeting.”

Having a pet around the office, while perhaps a bit nontraditional, helps Fekete in other ways, too.

“If Colby is uncomfortable around somebody, then we would think twice about even doing business with that person,” says Fekete, who quickly adds, “but all of my clients have very much accepted her.”

Colby has a nose for good job candidates, too.

“When we hire new employees, she’s the first test they have to pass,” Fekete says. “Some people just aren’t comfortable around dogs, and she’s part of the staff here.”

Allowing pets in the workplace may seem simple enough, but it requires careful planning. Some issues to consider before bringing a pet to the office include:

Customer reaction. April Volpe, who knows 5-year-old Luigi is the top cat at April’s Flowers & Gifts on West Fifth Avenue, says she occasionally encounters a customer who is afraid of animals. To remedy this, she simply puts Luigi in the back room while that customer is in the shop.

But she points out that most customers are very receptive to Luigi, even asking about him when they call to place orders.

Volpe’s sister, Mindy Bates, has had a similar experience with the two pets she keeps at Gracie’s Flower Market in the Brewery District. Daff, a 5-year-old cat, has actually developed his own little “following” in the area, Bates says.

“People come in just to see him, and when I have to put something together for customers, they can visit with the cat or the bird [a 12-year-old parrot named Garbanzo] while they wait,” she says.

Safety — for the animal and the customer. Volpe displays a sign on the front door of her shop cautioning customers not to let the cat out. She also says she would hesitate to allow other pets in the workplace, fearing it would upset Luigi.

And because Volpe’s primary concern is for her cat’s safety, she often will keep Luigi in the back room when small children are in the shop, because they might play too roughly with him.

Bates concedes that having pets at work might create some liability issues, but she considers them minimal.

“The bird is in a cage behind the counter, so he’s not sitting or flying around the shop, but I do tell people that he’ll bite if he doesn’t know you,” she says. “And the cat still has his claws, so if people are rough with him, he could scratch them.”

Because of these risks, Bates is careful to keep her pets’ shots up to date.

Employee health. Volpe’s desire to keep her cat at the gift shop nearly cost her an employee.

“My driver is allergic to Luigi and was going to quit,” she explains, “but she became incredibly attached to him, and now when she comes in, she puts on a mask and gloves just so she can pet him.”

Fekete’s art director also initially had problems with pet allergies; however, Fekete reports that “she quickly became acclimated to Colby, and now she even has two dogs of her own.”

Volpe, Bates and Fekete enthusiastically recommend pets in the workplace. In fact, aside from a bit of lunchtime begging, Fekete calls Colby a perfect employee with an excellent work ethic.

“She is the only employee who bounds into work every morning,” Fekete says.

Jo Ann Judy (JJudy@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Columbus.