Part 5: Making sure employees aren’t acting as activist plants
by Sally Colby
Dealing with animal rights activists is a new reality for livestock producers. Although the majority of farm visitors and new employees are not interested in posing as activists or intentionally harming livestock on a farm for the sake of a video, the small minority who are can do great harm. How can an employer ensure that new employees are doing their jobs as assigned and not mishandling livestock or intentionally setting up scenes that could be viewed as animal abuse?
“Sometimes people are hired on farms to do jobs that have nothing to do with the animals,” said Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of Animal Agriculture Alliance. “If such people are hired for a non-animal job, then express an interest in switching to a position that involves working directly with the animals, that can be a red flag. Someone who asks questions about security, whether or not the farm has cameras, or the schedule of the manager – that might be a red flag.”
Many undercover activists will obtain employment, work for a while, then suddenly leave. Smith says a commonly used ploy in this case is an employee stating that they need time off to travel overseas to care for a sick relative in Europe. “Check that excuse,” she said. “In every one of the 82 videos we have, the individual has left employment with some excuse, or they leave without showing up the next day with no notice because they don’t need your paycheck – they’re getting a paycheck from the animal rights group.”
Other suspicious activity includes unexpected visitors who show up in suits and ties stating that they are there ‘to check animals for disease’. “These are individuals who have no relationship with the farm, but they’re dressed in business attire and show up unexpectedly,” said Smith. “It’s very disarming to the owners of the farm.” Smith suggests in this case, the farm owner ask for a business card, phone number and name of the employer who sent them there. “Get as many details as you can,” she said. “If they ask to see the animals, the answer is no. If they leave, take a look at the car they’re driving. Get as many details about the individuals and the vehicle they have driven to your farm, and share that information with local law enforcement.” Smith urges farmers who have been targeted to share detailed information with the Animal Ag Alliance to help in the effort to track individuals who are acting undercover.
Smith says some farms (such as contract growers) have had unexpected visitors who state that they work for the company but in a different role. “Or they say they work for one of your customer companies and they’re there to do an audit. But if you aren’t aware of an audit or someone showing up, before you allow these individuals in or on your property, make sure you verify their story. Do not, under any circumstances, let them into your farm or around your animals unless you have verified they are who they say they are.”
New employees should be monitored during training and for several months into the job. “Assign a trustworthy, experienced employee to keep an eye on a new employee to make sure they’re following what they’ve agreed to,” said Smith. “Hold employees accountable. If they are mistreating or mishandling animals, either retrain them, hold them accountable or fire them. You cannot afford to keep people who are not doing things right and not caring for animals properly and who don’t have your long-term best interests at heart.”
Smith suggests holding regular employee briefings so that all employees know what your policies are regarding animal care, whether or not they are directly involved in animal handling. Include the office manager, secretaries and anyone else on the farm, and make sure they can provide accurate answers if asked questions about farming by the non-farm public. “Create a culture of professionalism among your employees,” said Smith. “Ensure that all employees know what your values are and reward them for following good animal handling practices.”
What about inquiries from college students who want to visit your farm, or perhaps ask to serve as an intern? Smith suggests they should be screened just as thoroughly as an applicant for a full-time position. For farms that hold public tours, due diligence is important. Make sure that tours are led by a family member or trusted employee who can answer questions thoroughly and is aware that the tour group might include an activist. Tour leaders should watch for odd behavior such as someone who wanders away from the group or tries to access places that are not on the tour.
In addition to training and monitoring employees, take time to build relationships with influential people such as state and local legislators. “Make sure they know of your farm and your commitment to your animals,” said Smith. “When you need them isn’t the first time you want them to have ever heard of you. Get to know local law enforcement so that if you call to report suspicious activity on your farm, they understand your concerns and why you are calling. Get involved in your community and talk about your industry and what you’re doing to contribute to the local economy.”
Smith reminds farmers that they are the ones who can help remove some of the distrust of agriculture among the non-farm public. “The more we can do to take away the mystery of agriculture, the better,” she said. “Have a presence on Facebook or a website so when people look up information on farms in your community, you (rather than the activist) are the one to present what your industry is about.”
If, despite your best efforts to prevent infiltration by activists, you find that your farm is the feature of an undercover video? Is there a communications plan in place, and a spokesperson to handle the media? “Make sure all employees know who the spokesperson is so that if phones ring or cameras roll, there is a knowledgeable person who is speaking on behalf of the farm,” said Smith. “Be honest with the media – if they call and ask for an interview, the worst thing you can say is ‘no comment’ or not return a call. Be open, be honest and explain that you are investigating the issue. Invite them out for a tour and show them how things are normally done.”
*The views and opinions expressed in this series do not represent the views of Country Folks or its parent company, Lee Publications Inc.