Should employees be allowed bereavement leave when a pet dies?

Peninsula Associate Director of Advisory Kate Palmer, offers advice for employers on the emotive issue of pet bereavements

Most businesses wouldn’t hesitate to give employees time off to mourn the death of a family member or close friend. But what happens if that loved one is a pet? Can they take bereavement leave?

These questions are gathering a lot of interest due to a recent story going viral about a grieving woman who was refused bereavement leave and sacked when she was too upset to go to work after her dog died.

Currently, there is no legal requirement for employers to allow their employees any time off work when their pet dies and, currently, no right to any form of bereavement leave at all. Permitting time off for employees in times of bereavement is down to the discretion of their employer and it is perfectly acceptable for them to refuse such a request. Whilst employees do reserve the right to take time off to deal with emergencies that involve a ‘dependant’, legislation defines dependants as spouses, children or someone who depends upon the employee for care. Specifically, it does not mention any sort of animal owned by an individual.

How companies will respond to this situation will depend upon the views of management and the demands of the business. Some managers may be sympathetic to their employee’s loss and be willing to let them take the time, whilst others may be less so. The company may simply not have the capacity to allow the employee to be off that day, especially if there is no one available to cover their duties. It should be remembered that if employees do take a period of absence without manager approval, it can be treated as unauthorised absence and potentially result in the start of a disciplinary procedure. In these situations, the employee’s length of service is likely to dictate what would be a fair and reasonable sanction.

However, employers should not underestimate the impact that the loss of a pet can have on their employees and, in particular, how much work they are going to be able to feasibly do on the day. If an employee feels that they will be unfairly judged for being honest with their employer, they may simply ‘throw a sickie’, something that can be very difficult to disprove. Although employers do reserve the right to discipline individuals who are not working to the required standard, they should tread carefully. Employees who have just lost their pet are likely to respond poorly to this and may not perform as well in their roles as a result.

To this end, employers may consider letting an employee take some time away to deal with this situation, either by permitting a day of annual leave or expecting the time taken to be worked back at a later date. If the employee does need to work on the day of the loss, employers could let them take the following day instead as a compromise. Employees could also be referred to any additional assistance the company offers, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), to help them better cope with their grief.  Remember that treatment should be consistent for all members of staff and it is highly advisable to outline any procedures within a company policy.