The Board of Directors Failed Me -Sexual Harassment at Farm Animal Rights Movement (Alex Hershaft)

If witnessing and experiencing for myself sexual harassment wasn’t enough, when told, the Board of Directors utterly failed to help me.

Resigning from FARM and the Investigation

After sending this email, I was extremely anxious and nervous because I knew it would eventually get to Alex. The emails I did receive back, though not from all Board members, were supportive. I also scheduled a phone call with three of the four Board members the following Sunday to discuss. In the phone call, I encouraged them to hire an independent investigator, as I had asked for in the email. There had been some reluctance since they did not want it to be public. I believe there was a small effort for the Board to handle it themselves and investigate. However, I had suggested the best course was actually an independent investigator who would do a more comprehensive investigation that included current and past employees to better understand the scope of the problems to make informed decisions. I had hoped it would also be able to show that this wasn’t just a one-time instance and instead a pattern of misconduct by the most powerful person at FARM, Alex Hershaft. I also thought it would be best for them to protect themselves, which I did tell them and had told them for the past two years.

After that meeting, it was decided that a private independent investigation would go forward. I was encouraged by this at the time but also extremely nervous. I didn’t know the full process and of what would come of it all, but I did want to be as helpful as I could. I truly did not want this to happen to anyone else.

Eventually, I heard that a firm was to be hired and the investigation would take place. I had called to get a few more details and was given the investigator’s number so that I could call and ask questions about the process. I also let the investigator and the Board know that I feared retribution for bringing these issues to the Board’s attention and asked if my job was in jeopardy. I felt this way since I had experienced how Alex pushed employees out before who had spoken up. I also knew that he would be extremely upset about all this. As for the Board response, they suggested that they were trying to reach a conclusion that was fair for all parties involved. The investigator did tell me retribution for this type of thing was illegal and at one point the Board did suggest that Alex had told them he had no plans to fire me. As far as the Board’s response, I don’t recall anything specific, though I do know they were against any retaliation. The issue was not that I was worried about them, but more so Alex.

I also found out that Alex had actually emailed all the staff except for me that I had filed a complaint against him with the Board and that someone would be calling each of them to ask questions. I was horrified and upset that this happened but honestly not surprised. To my knowledge, the Board had never asked Alex not to communicate with the staff about the complaint or the investigation, just not to communicate with me.

The next day, the Board officially told the staff, without naming me, and let them all know that their jobs would not be impacted, and that it was all in the best interest of FARM. I let the investigator and the Board know that I had been informed that Alex had emailed the staff. The only thing that I heard was that it was terrible and they wished it hadn’t happened. I was not informed if Alex was reprimanded for doing so or if the people who received the email got reassurance that nothing would happen if they spoke honestly with the investigator. I figured the current staff, being very small, would feel pressured to not talk honestly about Alex if they had experienced anything like I had. Also, to my knowledge, at that time, neither I nor anyone on the staff was informed who would see the final report, even though I had asked multiple times.

The Board meeting had been set for July 7, 2020, which would discuss the report and moving forward. I found out two days later that, after I emailed the Board and investigators on the 7th, the Board meeting was actually postponed till July 21, 2020.

One of the first concerns I ran into was just how disorganized and naive the Board was and how little they knew. I asked the investigator who would get the report who controls who is interviewed and who set the parameters on how long each interview was and how many there would be. I was informed that it was entirely up to the Board, since they were the ones paying the bill. The investigator could suggest things, like additional people to interview, but it all had to be approved. I was told I would be interviewed for 45 to 60 minutes (as would all current full-time staff), while part-time staff would have 15 to 30 minutes. As for who would get the report, the investigator told me that they would only send it to the Board liaison and that it would be password-protected and that password would, again, only be sent to that one Board member. After that, it was up to the Board to decide who would see it.

Eventually, the investigation did come to a conclusion, though I felt my concerns were not addressed. To my knowledge, only three or four additional people who were former employees were added to the list. I do not know who these people are, and I’m unsure if Alex was ever told who they were. I had suggested a few people, but also suggested a wider scope in general. The people I had suggested were just ones whom I had told at the time when it happened or witnessed things with me or on their own and told me. I do not know if any of the people I suggested were interviewed or if Alex was able to suggest anyone. At some points in FARM history, while I was there, there were about 25 to 30 staff members, and when the investigation happened, there were only three full-time employees and four part-time employees. I was hopeful that the investigation would have been wider in scope to include a larger number of past staff experiences with Alex.

In conclusion, I was told a report had been submitted to the Board on July 17, 2020, one month after my initial complaint. I emailed to ask for updates and was sent the recommendations that the investigator had attached to the report. I was asked to keep these recommendations confidential. I can say that they really were not much aside from what a healthy organization should already have set up. I was shocked that none of the recommendations had anything to do specifically with repercussions to Alex for his misconduct. Instead, they focused generally on policies that they felt FARM was missing.

With this news, I emailed the Board requesting what actually had been done with the recommendations and if they had future plans. We set up a time to talk and I was filled in that some of the recommendations had been adopted and that they had plans to do more. I was glad these steps were being taken, though I felt they were not enough and that they had simply taken too long. I spoke to the Board members for an hour and they had to go, so I requested we set up another time to talk. It was expressed that finding a time to talk that week was challenging and email was better. After that I sent the following email:

In response, I got an email from the board which I concluded to be full of half-truths and lies.

Upset that I felt I had been lied to, that I had to tell them yet again that I was still employed by FARM and that I felt nothing of substance was being done, I emailed them back. By “nothing of substance” I mean that I felt I had heard that certain policies had been adopted by the Board; I, as a staff member, never received any notification of the policies that were said to have been adopted. These are things like a sexual harassment policy, a work-from-home policy and a policy about not using FARM resources to promote individual employee opinions. These are the things that were relayed to me by board members. They were policies that I was told were adopted at the July 21, 2020, Board meeting; however, it was now August 7, 2020, and I had not received any new policies. I also felt they were not being enforced by the board, since Alex’s blog was still being promoted on FARM’s social media and email lists.

I decided to respond with counterpoints to each of the above points, as I felt it was important to note that I felt there simply was not enough being done. I felt, at least from what I had been told and could tell, policies had not been sent to the staff and nothing was being enforced. The email is below:

After no response for five days and feeling as if the Board ultimately would do nothing, I decided to resign on August 14, 2020. After my resignation, which I had sent to the Board, minus Alex, I did not get a response for a bit. What I did get was an email from Eric Lindstrom, the new Executive Director of FARM, one day after I sent my resignation (August 15, 2020) suggesting that I had resigned June 5, 2020, from FARM and that I had two paths available. These were “1) You [Ethan] are no longer are employed by FARM (or ARC) effective immediately (assuming you’re done with the last details of the ARC) and we would send over to have you sign a separation agreement. We can also offer a severance package since you’ve been such a valuable employee for so many years. 2) You [Ethan] decide you WANT to work for FARM (under my supervision) and we send over a new contract stating the hourly rate and expected number of hours per week.”

It also suggested that “To address your allegations, the board took them very seriously and, as you know, hired CSI to conduct an investigation, b) CSI did not report a finding of sexual harassment, but made four precautionary recommendations (which were forwarded to you by Seth from my understanding), c) The board adopted these recommendations at their meeting on July 21st (people working from home, no adult material on FARM computers, and development of a workplace harassment policy).”

I believe this to be a lie, as I was told CSI investigators DID NOT report what Eric suggested here. It is my understanding that they would not comment on whether it was or was not, and that they were simply gathering facts for the Board. The Board had suggested that they actually hired another attorney in Maryland to review the report for that very reason. Also, “precautionary recommendations” for something that I had already experienced? And again, to my knowledge, not all were adopted and actually implemented in any functional way, though I hope they are now. I did not respond to this email.

I received a response from the Board, on August 16, 2020 (two days after I sent my resignation), letting me know that they did receive my resignation but requesting that I “Please do not send out further for now. We will be back in touch with you later this week.” I was feeling bad the next day when Eric emailed again requesting that I call him. I certainly did not want to be unfair to the FARM staff who were not alerted to my resignation, so I requested that the Board let Alex and Eric know. It was once again requested that I give the Board some time. The next morning the Board accepted my resignation and told me they would let Eric and Alex know. I’ve not been in contact with the Board or Alex since.

Thoughts on the Board

An important note: Alex Hershaft has been and still is the President of Farm Animal Rights Movement’s Board of Directors.

I’d like to reiterate that I have no qualms with the Board members (aside from Alex) personally, though I do seriously feel they have failed FARM, the Animal Rights National Conference, the employees of each of these, and me. I do not want to take away from all the amazing things they have done or will do in any way, but I do want to call attention to their mishandling of years of complaints against Alex, the abdication of their responsibility to the employees and organizations, and how they left me feeling utterly unsupported.

Multiple times after the investigation had started, I expressed my concerns to them, both in emails and on phone calls. I was reassured each time that I was being listened to, but I didn’t feel anything was actually happening. I felt that select members of the Board were saying supportive things but not following through with their actions. I do believe they believed me; I don’t think they really had a choice since, according to them, Alex did not deny these things could have happened, except for one incident. Nothing else was really being contested.

One of my main concerns was the entire scope of the investigation and how much it was being controlled by the Board and maybe Alex himself. I assume, as Alex is both the President of FARM and the Board, that he was involved in payments, though I was not and am still not certain of this. But the very fact that I was never really clear is something I take issue with. I was told the investigation would happen, even if the Board members had to pay for it; however, I’m not entirely sure how much they wanted to pay for or find out since they did limit the investigator.

As for the outcome, to my knowledge there have been no repercussions to Alex for his misconduct. The investigator’s report was not shared with me, so I can only imagine what was found, but based on my experiences alone, I felt there should have been some consequences. I feel that the only one who suffered any repercussions for Alex’s misconduct is me and employees who had left due to the toxic work environment. In order to go remote more and go into the office less, I moved an hour away, leaving my apartment and paying more for my current living arrangement. I started going to therapy and paying for that and medication (plus health insurance). In June, I resigned from part of my duties, losing one-third of my salary and risking losing the other part of my salary by coming forward and also with the plans up in the air.

It was an extremely difficult time for me, especially after the conference had been canceled, and it felt as if the Board did not consider me to be an employee of FARM. Alex had been pressuring for my removal, and I was effectively being off-boarded from my position while still intending to stay. These are things that the Board had been made aware of yet, to my knowledge, did not do anything to help me.

I felt like I was a hindrance to the Board, like they felt bad for me and wanted to help, but also that they were just volunteers and too busy. I truly wish they would have taken their obligations seriously. I understand that they are unpaid volunteers, that they have their own jobs and busy schedules, but I also understand the commitment they made to FARM and the employees. While I felt they believed my experiences and wanted to try to help, I cannot for any reason figure out why they didn’t.

When I left, after seven years of what I believe was good work, I got nothing. I did not apply for unemployment or intend to because I wasn’t even sure I would be able to since I resigned and worried FARM would fight it. I received no compensation for the medical treatment I had and continue to have. I am not complaining here, or playing a victim, I’m merely stating facts. At the end of the day my number one desire for the animal right movement is that those who join any Board of Directors should take their obligations seriously and recognize that doing otherwise only hurts activists, the movement and, in turn, the animals. The other is that people are held accountable for what they do, and aren’t just given a free pass. There are so many men that have done awful things, and yet still get immense support while others get nothing. I truly feel we must do better for the animals.

If you are interested in the timeline of events with emails, I put together on my website.