How do you stop a thief?

How do you stop a thief?

Stop, thief! The cry evokes the image of a stranger. But what if the thief is a valuable employee?

IS is no more susceptible to harbouring bad apples than any other department. But our widespread access to all parts of the company, plus the fact that our staff frequently works off-hours with little supervision, perhaps increases temptation.

What does a manager do when theft is homegrown?

Company A, a small software services firm, wanted to keep "administrivia" to a minimum, so it kept a room stocked with supplies. Staffers could walk in and take what they needed. Besides paper clips, tape and other standard supplies, toner cartridges, power strips, mice and other devices were kept in stock.

Over the months, supply costs began to increase significantly. Management concluded that things were being stolen and issued a memo that stated one or more individuals were stealing from the company and that strong action would be taken. The supply room was locked, and employees had to ask the president's secretary for a key when-ever they wanted access. There was no access after hours and on weekends.

About three weeks later, the staff discovered that someone had cleaned out more than a dozen offices over the weekend. Some equipment was stolen, but mostly people lost personal stereos, CDs, clocks and similar items. Because there was no evidence of a break-in, the police concluded it was employee theft. New locks were installed on the outside doors, but otherwise, no further action was taken.

Message heard

The thefts didn't continue, and the culprit was never caught. No one knows if the timing of the theft was a coincidence or if it was motivated by the new policy.

Another situation took place several years back, before the advent of laptops. Company B, a hardware firm, had employees in several offices across town. Like many such firms, it had a room set up for customer demonstrations and training, and many employees routinely carried equipment back and forth among the various buildings. Equipment began disappearing from the demonstration room: first a printer, then a large-scale display unit, a PC and a projection device. The firm alerted its managers to the situation, but no one could offer any explanation.

Finally, a special camera in-stalled in the demonstration room caught one of the senior engineers blithely removing a PC. The individual was summarily dismissed, and word was passed that the culprit had been found. No formal announcement was made to the employees, but they soon realised one of their colleagues was gone.

The fired engineer was very upset and asked to speak to his manager. He admitted taking the equipment but said that it wasn't stealing. He said it was more of a loan, just part of a research effort he was conducting on his own time. And after all, the equipment in the demonstration room didn't really belong to anyone. He also said the firm made most of the equipment itself or got it at a steep discount from suppliers, so the cost was minimal.

The manager knew the engineer was the ultimate bit-head. Perhaps, the manager thought, he was telling the truth. And if he didn't intend to keep the equipment, was it really theft? Moreover, the engineer was an extremely valuable resource, critical to the development of a new application. The manager concluded that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and went to the CEO to ask for a reinstatement. The CEO reluctantly agreed. Two weeks later, the employee and the equipment were back on the job. No announcement was made to the staff.

The staff reacted in various ways. Some believed that management had essentially sanctioned criminal behaviour. They expressed discomfort at working with the individual. Some believed that management had done the right thing in giving a talented individual a second chance. Most just ignored the situation.

Most large companies have clear-cut policies on employee theft, with infractions drawing significant penalties. Smaller companies tend to rely on their collegial atmosphere as a guarantee against such behaviour. But the atmosphere of trust can easily be shattered.

Company A's management may have over- reacted when it basically accused everyone in the company of being a potential thief. We'll never know if the resulting weekend heist was a coincidence or the result of an employee deciding to "teach the firm a lesson". It would have been better if management sent out a memo that stated the problem of supply costs and asked employees to take only what they needed, rather than instituting a key control procedure. Management also could have asked for suggestions on how to monitor the situation.

Poor management

Company B may not have had a true thief on its hands, but the way it handled the situation was extremely bad for morale. Employees, lacking any real information, could only conclude that either one of their colleagues had been accused and dismissed unfairly or that the company tolerated thieves if they were important enough. A better approach would have been to issue a short memo stating what had happened and that management was satisfied it was a misunderstanding, and reiterating the company's rules on equipment usage.

Every firm, no matter how small, needs a clear policy that outlines when equipment or other valuables can be removed from the office, and that a violation of the policy is considered theft and cause for immediate dismissal. It then needs to enforce that policy across the board.

Leilani Allen's column deals with people issues managers face every day but are reluctant to discuss openly. Each is based on a real-life situation. The names and certain circumstances have been changed to protect confidentiality. Allen is a director at Tenex, a management consulting firm in the US.

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