WASHINGTON, D.C. – It's an unfortunate fact that some employees steal from their employers. When we consider employee theft we're inclined to think first about taking supplies, equipment, or cash. Slower to come to mind are other forms of theft, such as late arrivals, early departures, extended lunch periods or performing personal business on work time. Whether it's pocketing paperclips and pens, padding an expense account, stealing time or embezzling millions, it's all theft.
Losses from employee theft are significant. Some retail firms have reported losses from employee theft exceed those from shoplifting. Many items that go out the door in pockets, purses, brief cases or tote bags may be small in dollar value, but ultimately, theft is never petty.
Some employees are casual thieves; however, many steal consistently. While no single employee group has a corner on theft, there have been studies suggesting that the employee class most likely to steal consists of unmarried males ages 16 to 25 who work jobs where there is both access and opportunity. Also, younger, less committed employees may steal more often, but older employees can be more dangerous to the business because they are usually the most trusted workers.
It should be no surprise that a sagging economy is often partly to blame for employee theft, but the overall causes of employee theft are found in need, greed and opportunity.
Theft frequently surfaces among lower-paid individuals, especially those who are in debt. There are also those who steal to support habits driven by alcohol, drugs or gambling. Greed, driving certain individuals who are basically dishonest, is also a factor in worker theft. And for many who actually steal or perhaps would steal, a strong factor is opportunity.
Other forces sometimes contribute to employee theft; for example, some workers who are sweating imminent layoff may adopt a "get-what-you-can" attitude. And there are always those who reason that what they're taking isn't especially valuable and "the company can afford it."
A company's vulnerability to theft may reside in lax hiring practices, a tendency to allow long-time employees easy access to opportunity, management that's cold and uncaring toward employees, and a management tendency to resign itself to a certain amount of theft as "normal."
Preventing employee theft begins with the hiring process; hasty, careless hiring surely increases a business' vulnerability. While the level of responsibility of a position may dictate the resources given to screening applicants, there are some basic steps applicable to most applicants:
•Verify employment history, and account for any significant gaps in this history.
•Verify qualifications, especially degrees and licenses.
•Perform thorough background checks as applicable to the nature of the job. (Warning: For certain kinds of positions background checks will be considered intrusive and unnecessary. There should be some feature of the job under consideration, for example handling money, that justifies the investigation.)
•Faithfully check references, making every effort to determine whether an applicant's work record raises concerns.
Numerous businesses once used polygraph testing in screening potential hires for responsible positions, but since passage of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act (1988), polygraph use in pre-employment screening is limited to a few specific instances.
For deterring employee theft, consider the following:
•Be sure that such conduct is appropriately addressed in company policies, specifically in the company's disciplinary policy.
•Prohibit access to vulnerable areas by persons who have no job-related reasons for being there.
•Inspect packages leaving the premises, and search trash containers.
•Spot-check shipping to ensure that what's invoiced is equal to what's actually going out.
•Consider bonding for employees holding positions in which embezzlement is possible.
•Keep full records of all transactions, regularly reconcile inventories, and use numbered sales receipts, invoices and register receipts.
Should a company prosecute employees who steal? Many businesses don't do so because of the resulting publicity. Although prosecution has proven to be an effective deterrent, many companies that are quick to fire are not nearly as quick to prosecute. Overall very few employee thefts are prosecuted, yet strong, swift action, including full prosecution for significant thefts, is essential in deterring more such thefts.
The most valuable resource in deterring employee theft is a knowledgeable and conscientious first-line manager. The immediate manager is the role model for the employees; if employees see the manager stretching lunch breaks, padding expense accounts, and walking out with pens and pads, they won't think twice before doing the same. On the other hand, honest leadership who abides all the rules and treats employees fairly will go a long way toward deterring employee theft.
Source: National Federation of Independent Business