Veganism and Animal Rights Activism Employment Screening | The Vegan Society

Veganism and Animal Rights Activism Employment Screening

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» Veganism and Animal Rights Activism Employment Screening

RAC member, Dr Jeanette Rowley, reveals the potential discrimination faced by vegans at pre-employment screenings.

Introduction

Private sector pre-employment screening companies offer ‘Animal Rights Activism’ checks to employers who are concerned about security. The phrase ‘animal rights activism’ is not defined and appears to cover a wide range of activities from supporting animal welfare, being associated with others who care about nonhuman animals, working in animal shelters, to having links with ‘extremist’ organisations, and having a criminal record.

This ambiguity and the lack of clarity about the meaning of ‘animal rights activism’ raises questions about the lawfulness of screening activities because they can impact negatively on the lives of innocent law-abiding vegan job seekers who have protected status under the Equality Act 2010.

In addition, immediately available information on the websites of employment screening providers does not explain the sector’s understanding of the meaning of ‘extremism’. Further, the official government and animal research industry position is that the threat of a level of animal rights activism that would come within the scope of criminal law is non-existent.

Overall, the way animal rights activism employment screening is advertised raises a number of issues and questions related to definitions and the scope of screening activities offered by private sector animal rights screening companies.

Screening job applicants for animal rights activism needs careful consideration in the light of protection for vegans under the Equality Act 2010. This is a special case for consideration by the bodies responsible for producing sector guidance, such as government sources1 and the Committee for British Standards2 because vegans are protected by both human rights and equality law and often manifest their ethical convictions by participating in a range of socially acceptable and lawful animal welfare and animal rights initiatives.  Consequently, private sector employment screening providers must be very clear about their understanding of what constitutes unlawful animal rights activism and their legal obligations.

Given the protected status of vegans, who are likely to be involved with animal welfare and advocacy as a manifestation of their ethical orientation, more research needs to be done3 to identify whether some of the broader screening activity advertised by screening companies is justified, necessary and adds real value to employers, or, whether the scope of advertised screening practices constitutes unlawful intrusion and intelligence gathering, and potential discrimination against vegans.

What is pre-employment screening?

The purpose of pre-employment screening is to prevent security risks to businesses. Screening is explained as obtaining information about job applicants and using that information to identify applicants who may present security concerns. The screening process aims to verify information given by applicants and confirm that applicants have represented themselves honestly and not misled a potential employer. Guidance explains that screening can be regarded as a ‘test of character’.4

Pre-Employment Screening Standards

The ‘Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure’ (CPNI) state that British Standard 7858 for the ‘Screening of Individuals Working in a Secure Environment Code of Practice’ (BS 7858) is used widely in the private sector and by third party screening companies:5

This British Standard gives recommendations for the screening of individuals, working in a secure environment where the security and/or safety of people, goods and services, data or property is a requirement of the employing organization’s operations and/or where such screening is in the public interest.6

The 2019 version of BS 7858 (BS 7858:2019) states that ‘for some roles it might be prudent to seek additional information using best practice social media and other open source internet checks to provide greater insights and reduce risk.’7 However, screening company ‘Verifile’ warns that:

…while social media and other open-source internet checks are now mentioned [in BS 7858], they are not a provision of the standard and can only be used as additional information in any employment decisions. Care is to be taken when using this method so as not to introduce any unlawful discrimination…8

The view of the CPNI is that media searches can be helpful to assess security risks, but they must be ‘necessary, proportionate and transparent. If the employer has no justifiable reason for conducting media searches, then they should not be done.’9 The CPNI also warns against making decisions solely on the basis of media searches and the importance of reaching fair and balanced decisions.

Legal Obligations

Pre-employment screening must comply with a number of laws including legislation on data protection, the Equality Act 2010, and the Human Rights Act 1998. Screening must not violate an individual’s right to privacy, and it must not disclose any information without due cause or be used in a discriminatory way. Screening should have a legitimate aim and be proportional to achieving that aim. The legitimate aim is likely to be to eliminate risk to the employer’s business and what is proportional may depend on the level of risk associated with the employment role in question.

Employers can use external screening services and seek their judgment on candidates. This is clearly a sensitive element of screening job applicants due to possible negative stereotyping and assumptions made about vegans, ‘animal rights activists’, and ‘animal rights activism’.

Private Sector Pre-Employment Screening Providers

Pre-employment screening providers market their services by professing their compliance with data protection regulations and various official Standards including British Standard 7858. Some companies, however, also promote the use of BS 7858, as being applicable to a wider range of employment roles which means that individuals submitting job applications for less sensitive positions could find themselves subject to a level of screening that would identify them as vegans, and quite possibly, therefore, problematise some of their interests and activities in support of rights for animals and animal welfare.

The following sections give an overview of how a handful of private sector employment screening companies promote animal right activism screening services to employers.

Security Watchdog

Private security company Security Watchdog10 claims to process over one million checks a year11 and states that BS 7858:2019 is now considered to be the industry standard for screening in employment, despite its original intention for use in secure environments.12 Security Watchdog states that:

Carrying out pre-employment screening to BS7858:2019 can help ensure that members of the public, as well as staff and property are kept safe - essential for employment in not only the security sector but all areas of employment (emphasis added). In addition, screening to this level can prove the competence of applicants, helping to demonstrate that they can carry out the job with trust and integrity.13

Security Watchdog also states that:

Security Watchdog’s Animal Rights Activism Check is specifically designed to deep-dive into an individual’s online profile and to uncover connections to animal welfare activist groups, lobbying organisations, or to simply identify relevant blogs, vlogs and comments shared online.14

The objective of this ‘deep dive’ into applicant’s online profile is to assess their level of animal ‘advocate activity’. Screening includes reporting on online posts and comments to friends, family and other connections, contributions to blogs, vlogs and other general websites, letter writing, participation in online petitions, evidence of public attendance at rallies, events, or demonstrations, known membership of animal welfare organisations, online donations to animal protectionist causes, volunteering or employment in animal shelters and following activist groups on social media and professional networks.

Given the guidance on the use of social media in employment screening, and the obligation to comply with relevant legislation, it is difficult to understand how some of this screening activity offered to employers could be regarded as justified, necessary and proportionate. Clearly, such a level of screening will identify vegans and their lawful activities, and it would be in breach of BS guidance, and unlawful, to cast aspersions or act in a discriminatory way towards them.

Sterling

Employee screening services offered by Sterling15 for non-security roles include a five-year activity and gap verification check, basic criminal record check, credit check, right to work check, directorship check, and a ‘public safety verification check’ which includes reporting on a candidates social media profile.16 Sterling states that a ‘public safety verification check’ is routinely used by businesses in the regulated sectors but is equally as important for companies where the prospective employee might be involved in the handling of money, client accounts or sensitive information.17 Sterling explain that its ‘Public Safety Verification accesses a comprehensive database of individuals and groups that are recognised threats’. It refers to the threat of terrorism and serious organised crime but also mentions more vaguely ‘social media screening’. Under ‘Animal Rights’, Sterling advertise their ‘Criminal Record Checks’.18

Sterling advertises and offers unique and bespoke screening solutions and it would seem that animal rights activism screening could potentially range from broad social media screening to criminal record checking.

Agenda Screening Services

Under ‘Social Media and Affiliations’ checks, Agenda Screening Services offers an ‘Animal Rights Connections Check (ARC)’ which includes a search of its ‘unique database of around a million individuals with associations and/or sympathies for animal rights causes.’19

There is no immediately available information about Agenda’s definition of ‘animal rights activism’ or how it came to be that a million people are on a database for a level of ‘animal rights activism’ that would be so worrying that records need to be kept to supply such data to security conscious employers. Given that there are a million names on the database it would not be surprising to learn that vegans are included simply for participating in entirely normal and lawful activity.

Verifile

Verifile conducts animal rights activist searches to ‘check to see whether an individual is a known animal rights activist.’ It states:

Using a specialist database and comprehensive online media searches, we can check for associations an individual may have with various single and multi-issue extremist organisations.20

The question raised about Verifile’s animal activist screening is the meaning of ‘extremist organisation’. References to animal rights ‘extremism’ is problematic and discussed in ‘7’ below, following a brief summary of what ‘animal right activism’ seems to mean to private sector employment screening providers.

Private Sector definition of Animal Rights Activism

Private sector employment screening companies promote an extremely wide concept of animal rights activism in the absence of a clear definition for the purposes of pre-employment and ongoing employment screening. Security Watchdog conflates ‘animal welfare group activity’ and ‘advocate activity’ with animal rights activism to offer a ‘level of advocacy’ check. Agenda Screening Services promotes a broad concept of animal rights activism through its ‘Animal Rights Connections check’ via its register of a million individuals who allegedly have associations with or sympathies for animal rights causes.

It is inevitable that these routine screening activities will identify and problematise what can be considered normal, everyday interests and activities of law-abiding vegans. In addition, Verifile offers an Animal Rights Activist check for ‘known’ animal rights activists, which is possibly further clarified as those with associations with extremist organisations. The problem of the use of the word ‘extremism’ is explored below.

Defining Animal Rights Extremism

As stated above, campaigning for animal rights, animal advocacy and animal welfare activity are not unlawful pursuits. Further, campaigning to support animal rights can take many acceptable forms. Veganism itself is lawful and it would be unlawful to unreasonably interfere with the practical manifestation of veganism by vegans or to discriminate against them.

Animal rights ‘extremism’ on the other hand refers to a level of conduct that, according to the government and courts, goes beyond what is acceptable in a democracy. It is a phrase often misused to describe law abiding campaigning (even the sector that conducts experiments on animals states that it is important to distinguish between animal rights activism and extremism21). Verifile speak of ‘known’ animal rights activists and those with connections to ‘extremist’ organisations, but the use of the word ‘extremism’ by employment screening providers is problematic. The following in-depth examination of ‘extremism’ explains why.

There is no statutory definition of the word ‘extremism’, but it is thought to involve serious, violent conduct of the sort typically associated with terrorism. The UK Government’s Counter Extremism Strategy 2015 explains extremism in the following way:

Extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs…22

From around the 1980s, onwards, a small number of animal rights campaigners held what were considered to be extreme ideas,23 with some going on to pursue ‘illegal campaigns of fear, intimidation and violence.’24 A former UK government considered some animal rights activism to be ‘part of a concerted campaign of extremism’25 and it was made clear that ‘animal rights extremists’ committing serious, violent acts could be dealt with under legislation designed to deal with terrorism and that those engaged in such activity should not ‘be surprised to find themselves treated as terrorists’:26

Some of the activities of animal rights extremists are often considered to be acts of terrorism. During the passage of the Terrorism Act, which came into effect on 19 February 2001, it was made clear that the powers in the Act would cover all forms of terrorism, including serious violent acts carried out by animal rights extremists, by widening the definition of terrorism.27

By 2011, it was acknowledged that there are not many violent animal rights extremists, their ideas don’t attract much support, and rather than posing a terrorist threat they pose only potentially public order issues.28 Contest 2018 makes a passing reference to the possibility that some criminal activity may be motivated by animal rights but that there is no threat to national security.29 Neither Contest 2011, nor the Counter-Extremism Strategy 2015 mentions animal rights activism and make no references to a worrying level of threat from animal rights extremism or animal rights terrorism.30

It is also acknowledged by the industry that performs experiments on animals that ‘[m]ost animal rights activism worldwide is legal and peaceful’. The industry also correctly defines animal rights extremism as illegal activity and acknowledges that illegal activity is largely historic - incidents being at an all-time low and there being no reported incidents in recent years.31 The risk of illegal animal rights extremism is so low that the dedicated website, established historically to inform scientists about animal rights activism, is no longer updated and has now been archived.32 Prior to archiving the website, the last post regarding criminal animal rights activity appears to be about the sentencing of campaigners in 2008/9.33

However, an interesting development in this area is the publication of advisory guidance by Counter Terrorism Police (CTP) who ‘work to keep people safe from terrorism’.34 One publication refers to ‘signs and symbols’, 35 and the other, ‘A Quick  Reference Guide’ entitled ‘Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism’,36 give information to help ‘recognise when young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies’.37 The two publications are discussed separately below.

Counter Terrorism Signs and Symbols

The list of signs and symbols was published to help police and partners identify those associated with right-wing, left-wing, animal rights and environmental groups. This guide shows a range of signs and symbols of concern and includes the logos of many organisations with which vegans may be affiliated such as Peta, Animal Aid, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion. The guide also lists the vegan flag. The guidance accompanying the document states that ‘not all of the signs and symbols are of counter-terrorism interest, and membership of these groups does not indicate criminality’. But emphasising ‘Action Counters Terrorism’, this guide goes on to give ‘quick and easy’ ways to report concerns.

The inclusion of a range of lawful organisations with no known links to terrorism is an issue taken up by The Guardian newspaper in a news report that includes comments from Peta, and Extinction Rebellion, who ask, if signs and symbols on the list are not relevant to counter terrorism then why include them in a counter-terrorism document?38 In response, Dean Haydon, Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism Policing, states that ‘[w]e need our CT officers, front line police colleagues and partners to be able to understand what organisations people may be affiliated with, and what their aims and activities – lawful or otherwise – are’.39 Peta director, Elisa Allen, argues that the inclusion of signs and symbols associated with peaceful campaigning ‘appears to be a sinister attempt to quash legitimate campaigning organisations – something that is as dangerous as it is undemocratic’.40

Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism

The publication, ‘Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism’, aims to help identify when someone may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies, by giving examples of behaviours to watch out for. The guide does not specifically mention veganism but does refer to many everyday behaviours of vegans and transitioning vegans.

The guide refers to ‘Animal Rights Extremism’ as the ‘opposition to the status of animals a property aiming at violent means to end their use in scientific research and as food clothing and entertainment’. The guide points to a threat because ‘[a]nimal rights activists are increasingly targeting a younger, more health conscious [sic] audience for recruitment. Graphic images of animals in distress can be emotionally persuasive.’ Listed behaviours to watch out for include:

  • looking at online material about animal welfare, and specifically the Save movement,
  • individuals taking part in protests against fox hunting,
  • adopting health conscious and environmentally sustainable lifestyles
  • expressing strong opposition to animal testing, fox hunting, zoos, the use of animals in circuses and wearing fur,
  • changes in behaviour such as no longer eating meat,
  • questioning others choice of products,
  • having stickers on personal possessions,
  • having embroidered patches on bags or clothing,
  • wearing animal welfare-themed t-shirts.41

Despite official recognition that animal rights ‘extremism’ is virtually non-existent, autonomous counter terrorism policing fosters a culture of fear about those who advocate on behalf of suffering animals. This undoubtedly affects the way vegans are perceived, especially given the organisations included in ‘signs and symbols’ to be aware of and the listed activities to watch out for in the guide on identifying ideological extremism.

This culture of fear potentially feeds into the assumptions and perceptions of employers and private sector pre-employment screening companies who will report back to employers on the activities of law-abiding vegans.

Liability for Discrimination

Security company Sterling claims that employers conduct off-the-record social media checks, and, like other employee screening companies, warns against this to avoid employer bias and potential liability for discrimination.

Historical guidance on pre-employment vetting from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)42 states that it because vetting goes beyond verification of details, it is particularly intrusive and should be confined to areas of special risk. It should not be routinely applied to all applicants as a means of intelligence gathering, it should be relevant to the later stages of recruitment only to obtain specific information, it should have clear objective, and the vetting process should be transparent to applicants and include a right for job applicants to respond to concerns.43

The 2019 BS 7858 guidance on the use of social media in employment screening implicitly recognises the privacy issues in historical ICO guidance and this is reflected in some statements made by the private security sector. Sterling, for example, recommends outsourcing such screening to a trusted third party to avoid employer bias, and to ensure a compliant and objective screening process that avoids unlawful discrimination.44 However, the founder and Managing Director of Security Watchdog, Susie Thomson, sits on the committee for BS 7858 but despite the advised cautious use of social media screening, her company advertises a ‘deep dive’ into a job seeker’s online profile. Liability for discrimination against vegans is, therefore, clearly a risk that the sector needs to take very seriously.

Nevertheless, where an employer is concerned that applicants working in secure environments could steal or threaten the integrity of data, information, or other physical or intellectual assets, or threaten people’s safety, an in-depth social media investigation of applicants can be justified. However, Verifile’s Founder and CEO, Eyal Ben Cohen, has stated that:

While social media checks have only been introduced as a recommendation, it does indicate that BSI’s guidance on the use of social media and open-source internet checks will soon become common practice.45

Summary

The discussion above highlights some of the issues and complexities for private sector animal rights activist employment screening. It is not known how prevalent this type of screening is, or what impact animal rights activism employment screening has or could have on law-abiding vegan job seekers, but it is clear that vegans could be at risk of discrimination in recruitment.

Vegans are protected under both human rights and equality legislation and despite the recommendation to outsource employment screening to avoid employer bias, it is not clear that private sector employment screening providers themselves are clear on what animal rights activism is, what animal rights ‘extremism’ means, or how to conduct animal rights activism employment screening in the context of the legal protections afforded to vegans.

Further, it is not known whether counter-terrorism publications affect the way employers and employment screening providers perceive vegans, but this is clearly an issue that requires further investigation and careful consideration by the formal bodies that oversee employment screening guidance and the implementation of equality measures.

References

  1. See CPNI for example
  2. British Standard 7858 (BS 7858) for the ‘Screening of Individuals Working in a Secure Environment Code of Practice’
  3. Such as a report commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for example.
  4. CPNI, ‘Employment Screening: A Good Practice Guide’ (Edition 7, August 2021). P.4
  5. CPNI, ‘Employment Screening: A Good Practice Guide’ (Edition 7, August 2021). P.4
  6. National Security Inspectorate, ‘TECHNICAL BULLETIN No: 0049 Publication of BS 7858:2019 - Screening of individuals working in a secure environment – Code of Practice
  7. National Security Inspectorate, ‘TECHNICAL BULLETIN No: 0049 Publication of BS 7858:2019 - Screening of individuals working in a secure environment – Code of Practice’, P.6
  8. See Verifile, ‘British Standard 7858 has had a 2019 makeover to include guidance on social media screening’, BS 7858 is available at a cost of  £186 from the BSI website.
  9. CPNI, ‘Employment Screening: A Good Practice Guide’ (Edition 7, August 2021). P.29
  10. Security Watchdog is part of Capita: a ‘consulting, transformation and digital services business’.
  11. Susie Thomson, Managing Director of Security Watchdog
  12. Security Watchdog, ‘Understanding the BS7858 Standard
  13. Security Watchdog, ‘Understanding the BS7858 Standard
  14. Security Watchdog, ‘Animal Rights Activism Checks’, (web page date, 2019).
  15. Sterling, ‘BS7858 Security Screening Explained
  16. Sterling, ‘What are Public Safety Verifications?
  17. Sterling, ‘What are Public Safety Verifications?
  18. Sterling website search (It would appear that on revisiting this website in March 2022, a search for ‘animal rights’ produces no results. However, I decided to leave the information about Sterling in the text to prompt other researchers to check back in case of further updates).
  19. Agenda Screening Services, ‘Menu of Screening Services 2021’, P.3
  20. Verifile, ‘Animal Rights Activist Search
  21. AnimalRightsExtremism.Info
  22. HM Government, ‘Counter Extremism Strategy 2015
  23. See Parliamentary records: HC Deb 19 November 1984 vol 68 cc21-8
  24. Former Prime Minister, Rt Hon Tony Blair MP, and former Home Secretary, The Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, ‘Foreword’ to ‘Animal Welfare – Human Rights: Protecting People from Animal Rights Extremists’, Home Office, 2004.
  25. Animal Welfare – Human Rights: Protecting People from Animal Rights Extremists’, Home office, 2004, p.4.
  26. Animal Welfare – Human Rights: Protecting People from Animal Rights Extremists’, Home office, 2004, p.10.
  27. Animal Welfare – Human Rights: Protecting People from Animal Rights Extremists’, Home office, 2004, p.10.
  28. House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation Nineteenth Report of Session 2010–12
  29. HM Government, ‘CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, 2018
  30. HM Government, ‘CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, 2011’; HM Government, ‘Counter-Extremism Strategy’ 2011.
  31. Understanding Animal Research, ‘Animal Rights Extremism
  32. See AnimalRightsExtremism.Info website
  33. AnimalRightsExtremism.Info, ‘Animal Rights Campaigners Sentenced
  34. See the CT website: ‘Counter Terrorism Policing is a collaboration of UK police forces working with the UK intelligence community to help protect the public and our national security by preventing, deterring and investigating terrorist activity’
  35. Counter Terrorism Police, ‘Signs and Symbols’ 2019
  36. Counter Terrorism Police (South East), ‘Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism: A Quick Reference Guide’ 2020
  37. Counter Terrorism Police (South East), ‘Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism: A Quick Reference Guide’ 2020. P. 2.
  38. Vikram Dodd ad Jamie Grierson, ‘Greenpeace Included With Neo-Nazis on UK Counter-Terror List’, The Guardian, January 17, 2020.
  39. Dean Haydon, Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism Policing, on the use of the ‘signs and symbols’, ‘Our Focus is on Countering Terrorism, Not Lawful Protest
  40. Quoted in Vikram Dodd ad Jamie Grierson, ‘Greenpeace Included With Neo-Nazis on UK Counter-Terror List’, The Guardian, January 17, 2020. Due to controversy the guidance was recalled. See Commons discussion.
  41. Counter Terrorism Police (South East), ‘Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism: A Quick Reference Guide’ 2020
  42. Information Commissioner’s Office, (2011) ‘The Employment Practices Code
  43. Information Commissioner’s Office, (2011) ‘The Employment Practices Code’.  P. 23-25
  44. Sterling, (2019), ‘The Pitfalls of Social Media Checks and How to Avoid Them
  45. Verifile, ‘British Standard 7858 has had a 2019 makeover to include guidance on social media screening
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