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How to Avoid Hiring an Animal Rights Activist

When hundreds of people are hired by large livestock producers, often for relatively short times, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Even on smaller farms, if you aren’t careful, you could unknowingly hire an animal rights activist aiming to infiltrate your operation.

As a rule, livestock producers take very good care of their animals, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because they know that the health and well being of their animals affect their bottom line. Policies to prevent animal abuse should be set in place, and employees should be trained to follow proper animal-care standards. That goes without saying. Still, we’ve all seen the undercover farm videos captured by animal rights activists, who claim abuse.

Damage by deception

One of the most memorable occurred in 2010, when an “investigator” volunteering for the Humane Society of the United States was unknowingly hired to work on a Rose Acre Farms egg-production facility in Iowa. The employee reportedly captured three hours of cell phone video, which was edited down to three minutes, showing inhumane treatment of hens. The owners of Rose Acre Farms acted proactively once the videotape attack was unleashed in the media, inviting local television stations to tour their facilities and undertaking a public relations campaign to minimize damage. Dairy, beef, hog, and other livestock operations have also had to deal with videos shot by activists.

Undercover attacks like this can cost an operation its reputation, not to mention massive economic losses. The best way to prevent this from happening on your farm, of course, is to strictly enforce the rules and regulations set in place for the humane treatment of animals. If everything is being done by the book, there is nothing for an undercover animal rights activist to exploit. Sometimes, however, violations do occur, despite the farm’s employee guidelines. Not all employees can be watched every minute. Also, activists can take photos and video out of context.

A handful of states have enacted laws over the past five years, which prohibit the photography or videography of livestock without the consent of the owner. Those laws have been challenged in some states and overturned in Idaho, being declared unconstitutional as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Even if secret recording is illegal in your state, if a video is captured and released on the internet, the damage is done. That’s why it pays to really look closely at potential employees.

Do your own investigation

It may seem like a lot of work to research each and every new hire, but it takes a lot less time and money than having to wage a public relations war. “The best advice I can give you is to prepare as if an investigation is going to happen,” says Tiffany Dowell Lashmet with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “The most important place to start is with your hiring practices and employee training.”

The first step is to discuss hiring policies with an attorney and be consistent across the board. “You can’t just ask certain applicants if they have been involved with animal rights groups – you have to ask everyone,” Dowell Lashmet says. She recommends these steps for preventing problems or providing a stronger case for litigation if a video is shot.

  • Have applicants swear they have told the truth on their employment application under penalty of perjury.
  • Check references. Make sure the phone numbers provided for references actually go to the company an applicant says they previously worked. Call the main office number and ask to be transferred to the reference, rather than calling the direct number listed.
  • Google them. This step costs nothing. Also ask for any other names the applicant may have used and Google those, as well.
  • Check social media. Search for the applicant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See what kinds of things they have posted and also look at the pages they like or follow.
  • Consider paying a professional for a background check.

Lara Durben is the communications director for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota, and the Midwest Poultry Federation. She also writes a blog for Successful Farming® Women in Ag. She says she gets an unbelievable amount of calls from members who have suspicious people around their farms or who are trying to get hired on farms or in poultry-processing plants. “Always do your homework on prospective employees, even when it takes some extra time on your part,” she advises. “This means checking all references and verifying that employment history is truthful and honest. While I like to think that most people are applying for jobs because they need work, there are some activists who are specifically targeting farms for their own agendas and will do whatever they can to get hired. Additional legwork on your part is worth it, knowing you are hiring employees who legitimately want the job.”

Jamie Van De Walle is a dairy nutritionist in Wisconsin who helps clients with employee searches, and she is also a Women in Ag blogger. “I warn my clients that if the prospective employee is too perfect, dig a little deeper,” she says. She suggests having applicants provide filled-out applications and resumes before the interview. “Actually go through that information. Highlight key areas that you want to talk about and write out questions you want to ask,” she says. “Get references and call them. I am amazed at how many farms never call the reference until they have issues. At that point, they are often told to expect the difficulty they are currently dealing with.”

Dowell Lashmet says there are warning signs that should alert employers that something isn’t right. “Watch for someone seeking employment below his or her skill level; or if the previous employment is out of character with agriculture work; or if that person is offering to work for limited or no pay, after hours, or to do jobs no one else wants to do. Be concerned if you see employees where they shouldn’t be or on the premises when they shouldn’t be.

She suggests creating an employment contract or handbook and having it reviewed by an attorney. It should include provisions that cell phones must be left in vehicles or lockers and rules that unauthorized photos and videos are the property of the employer.

“Also, keep your long-time, trusted employees on the lookout for any problems, including any animal abuse or mistreatment or any videos being taken,” she says.

Be prepared

If an undercover video is taken, it’s important to have a plan in place beforehand so you can act quickly. Establish a crisis team that includes an attorney, media relations expert, and veterinarian. Have a written policy in place and know who is and isn’t going to speak with the media.

“If a video is released, immediately send a spoliation letter to the organization releasing it so they have to keep all the video footage shot by the employee,” Dowell Lashmet says. “This allows you to make sure things aren’t taken out of context. An attorney may also seek an injunction to prevent the video from being played further if the proper requirements are met.” This can be difficult to enforce, however, because once a video hits social media, it will be dispersed quickly.

If employee whistleblowers or undercover videos do show unwanted practices in your operation, “take swift action that fires the employee who committed the acts,” Dowell Lashmet says. “If there is wrongdoing, take responsibility up front. Don’t blame others.”

“It really comes down to being prepared and taking the time to do your homework,” Durben says. “It’s difficult sometimes to put in the extra time because you really need an employee – and often you need one fast! Just remember that you want to hire the right employee, even if that process takes a little longer.”

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