Part 3: how not to hire an activist plant
by Sally Colby
It’s no secret that animal activists are trying to access farms for the purpose of gaining video or photographs of animal abuse. Although cases of true abuse do exist, in many cases, the activist who makes his way onto a working farm is there to create the illusion of abuse through video or still photos. It’s important for farm employers to be cautious in hiring to protect themselves, their good name, and their animals.
“They’re very shrewd about getting hired,” said Kay Johnson-Smith, president and CEO of Animal Agriculture Alliance. “Many will say that they have farm experience, so when they tell you they have worked on farms, they have. They go from farm to farm or region to region around the country. If they worked on a farm in Nebraska today, six months from today, they’re going to show up trying to get hired on a farm in New York.”
What can farmers do to prevent hiring an undercover activist? “It’s about protecting your animals and your business,” said Smith. “When people come seeking a job, thoroughly screen all applicants, require reference and check references. If you can, do background checks.”
Smith says after years of reviewing undercover activist videos, she has seen a number of red flags common to nearly every incidence of an activist being hired. “Look out for people who show up saying that they only need work for a few months to make extra money,” she said. “Often, these individuals are willing to work for free. Their excuse is that they are there to ‘learn about the business’ and ‘thinking about farming and would like to know more about it before they make the investment.’”
Animal Ag Alliance recommends that employers require a written application, references, and follow up. “Unfortunately, some businesses look at references but don’t make the call,” said Smith. “Then if they are targeted and call the reference, they find that the number is disconnected, or perhaps the individual listed a legitimate farm but never actually worked there. Include a statement that must be signed ‘all information provided on this application is true and correct under penalty of perjury.’ They will sign it – but might make them think twice. That makes you a more difficult target and the applicant may seem more nervous in signing it.”
Always verify the applicant’s phone number and permanent address. Note if there are gaps in employment on the resume. Watch body language and signs of nervousness if the applicant is asked to explain those gaps. “If they’ve worked on farms, listen to the language they use,” said Smith. “Does the language sound like someone who has experience working on a farm? Are they using formal language that they researched on the internet or are they using language that truly fits the type of farm and job you have? If they list farms (as references), call and verify that they are who they say they are. Often, activists will use the same name going from farm to farm.”
For applicants who have out-of-state license plates, the employer should think about ‘how did they even know my farm is here, and why are they here in this rural area looking for work?’ Stories about moving to the area for a girlfriend or boyfriend are also suspect. College students seeking internships should be thoroughly checked in the same way as all other employees.
Smith suggests that farm employers create a list of questions and have that list reviewed by an attorney to ensure that questions are appropriate for the state. Questions such as full name, alternate names, current and past addresses, and college degrees may tell a lot. “Many undercover activists have worked under aliases,” she said. “They use different means to get onto farms, so ask if they have ever worked or earned a degree under a different name to see what their response is.”
Employers should ask outright if the potential employee is working for any organization that is paying them to collect information related to the farm or proprietary procedures or processes. “Of course they’re probably going to say no,” said Smith, adding that the question should be part of the written application as well as the interview process. “But if they get nervous, they might say yes. Pay close attention to how they respond, and to body language to see if they look uncomfortable or tense.”
An important question, another for which body language is key, is whether or not the applicant has ever observed an animal being subjected to treatment that they believe is harmful. “If so, ask where and when, and what did you do about it?” said Smith. “You can read a lot into the answers they give and their body language as they answer this kind of question.”
Candidates should be asked if they have any equipment, including a cell phone, that they would have during work that could potentially be used for audio, video or still pictures. If so, ask them to show you what they have and require disclosure that they have it. “This doesn’t mean that they will disclose an undercover camera,” said Smith, “but the fact that you asked this question shows the individual that you are aware and tuned in to the tactics they use, and makes you a harder target to lie to and get away with undercover activity.”
Another safeguard is to require individuals to sign a confidentiality agreement upon employment. “They’re verifying that they are not there to capture proprietary information about your farm,” said Smith. “You can state at the opening that if they breach the agreement, they may be responsible for paying your attorney fees if you need to hire an attorney. Include a pledge that they will not film or photograph anything on the farm without permission from you as the employer and recognize that all film and photos taken while employed are your (the owner’s) property.”
Part 4 will focus on what farm employers can do to ensure employees are performing tasks properly and not acting as activist plants
*The views and opinions expressed in this series do not represent the views of Country Folks or its parent company, Lee Publications Inc.