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Three ways to prevent animal mistreatment, undercover videos

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 31 March 2014

It takes only one.

One employee. One video camera. One YouTube post. One minute to destroy a hard-earned reputation.

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The risks dairymen face today go far beyond crop failure and commodity market volatility. Producers are tasked with protecting their livelihoods from agenda-driven activists trying to sneak through the door and onto our dairies.

Hiring trustworthy employees who will uphold animal treatment standards is not just a human resources concern. It is truly a “risk management issue,” according to attorney David Crass of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP.

He challenged dairymen to re-think their risk management strategies to protect their greatest assets at the Dairy Business Association’s Access Symposium, held in Green Bay, Wisconsin, February 18-19.

“You have many business assets,” he explained. “Your livestock, your employees, your name, your good will and your ability to continue to participate in the industry.”

The reality is that you could be one video away from losing it all.

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“You are ultimately responsible for what happens on your farm in the court of public opinion, if not in the court of law,” Crass stated.

These viral videos could potentially open the door for further risks. Crass foresees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other employee justice groups latching onto animal mistreatment issues as indicators of an unsafe workplace. Such groups may use these cases as a “regulatory hook” to get into an operation and attack the farm itself.

With so much at stake, minimizing employment risks should be top-of-mind for dairymen. Crass offered three risk management steps for hiring and managing employees:

1. Conduct a thorough interview and screening process for any potential employee that walks through the door.

Take the time to contact past employers, conduct background checks and search court records. If something doesn’t seem right, do not dismiss it.

“Trust your gut,” Crass said.

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Don’t stop there. A social media search can open a window to the personal life of an applicant. Check out the individuals and groups the applicant associates with on Facebook and Twitter, keeping an eye out for known activist groups.

While Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws prevent employers from discriminating employees based on such factors as race, religion, sex and age, they can make hiring decisions based on their association. In some states, it is legal to request an applicant’s Facebook username and password.

Even after an employee clears the red tape and comes on board, continue to routinely check social media activity and criminal history.

2. Establish employee training and policies.

“If you don’t already have an employee training program and an employee handbook, you absolutely need one,” Crass told dairy producers.

These company documents become the standards by which the employer can judge employee performance, and they also become the record against which employers may take termination or disciplinary action without the threat of EEOC.

Through training and policies, Crass encouraged dairymen to create a “culture of compliance” by elevating the importance of humane animal handling.

Include a training section specific to the topic, and require mandatory reporting if an employee observes someone else violating the policy. This means that a person who witnessed the unacceptable activity but chose not to report may be deemed as guilty as the perpetrator.

Crass also emphasized a strict “no cell phone” policy among employees.

“There is absolutely no reason, in my view, to have a personal cell phone or recording device in the workplace,” Crass stated.

No cell phone policies are common among companies who want to protect their trade secrets, such as those in the manufacturing industry. Often, cell phones, video recorders and cameras are not permitted, but some employers choose to allow devices in designated areas.

The same cell phone policies may be applied to visitors or vendors on the dairy. When safety on the job is a concern, two-way radios can be used in place of cell phones.

3. Create a culture of swift and decisive enforcement.

Have a zero-tolerance policy for misconduct and back it up, recommended Crass. Applying this attitude can mean that a good employee is reprimanded or removed from a position as a result of a violation. While these situations are not easy, they serve to send a message that management takes policy infractions seriously.

The presence of managers in the barn and around the dairy is critical, Crass added. Human behavior changes when people know they are being watched.

Random walk-throughs are a good way to keep an eye on employees. Some may choose to take it one step further by installing video surveillance. “The fact that cameras are present will have an effect,” he noted.

Crass emphasized that additional rules and policies are not intended to deter loyal and responsible employees, but rather to make it more difficult for activists to find and exploit abusive animal treatment.

“Remember, what we are not trying to do is harm our good employees,” Crass said. “These people that are infiltrating are doing so with a specific purpose in mind. They are not going to spend three years in a frustrating situation not getting what they want.” PD

peggy coffeen

Peggy Coffeen
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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