Catch me if you can

Is this you: “I trust my staff, but how can I be sure that they are not stealing from me?”

In my seventeen years at ESP there has been one thing that has always been present in the businesses of our clients, and that is employee theft. In this month’s article I would like to look at this issue, what causes it and what possible steps can be taken in order to avoid it.

Theft is everywhere

As some background research into this article I did the usual and Googled the topic.

The top results were some recent events including a Flight Centre employee’s theft of $117 000 in New Zealand and a former employee of a Witchita bank’s theft of over $289 000 in the U.S.

Movies and books are often about robberies, whether banks, trains, casinos or whatever you can imagine. If it has value, you will find humans who want to steal it.

Some examples of real events in history are movies like Catch Me If You Can (where I have borrowed this articles title from) with Leonardo Di Caprio playing the role of Frank Abagnale and the cheque and other fraud that he committed by posing as a pilot and various other people.

You may also be familiar with the story of Nick Leeson who was responsible for the collapse of Englands oldest bank (Barings Bank) due to his illegal private trading using the banks funds in the nineties.

In the news each day you will hear stories of theft, corruption and misappropriation of funds at every level and all walks of life. Whether its someone who is unemployed and homeless, a wealthy CEO, a small business owner, a business partner, an employee, a politician or even a president, theft and dishonesty is there. It also doesn’t matter what country you are from, whether its South Africa or Switzerland.

The problem is not necessarily lack of education or prevalence of poverty as these are not always present in the circumstances that lead to theft. However, there is one thing that is always common whenever theft and dishonesty occur and that is people.

It’s odd that humans don’t need to be taught how to steal, rather we need to be taught to not steal.  No-one is beyond suspicion when it comes to being 100% honest, not even you. Therefore, when it comes to staff members stealing it is almost surprising when we are surprised by it.

Is security the answer?

At my home in Cape Town we have a very low front wall and high back wall, which has electric fencing on it. We have talked for a long time about putting up a high wall in front so that we can enjoy more privacy in our front garden. However, we are led to believe that as soon as we do this we are making it easier for criminals to move around on our property more freely because a high wall will hide them from public view.

I know someone who has electric fencing, 24 hour video surveillance, alarms with armed response and security beams in their garden that trigger an alarm if anyone tries to walk across their garden. Somehow, with all this security in place burglars still managed to get into their house very easily and rob them. It’s almost like burglars are more interested when you go to greater lengths to protect your belongings, as if you have more value to protect and they are always looking for even a single weakness in your security that they can exploit.

Does this mean that we should just leave our houses open and not take any security measures? Of course not, but it does mean that these things in and of themselves will not always protect us but they may often deter criminals looking for an easy target.

Therefore, security in your business, whether in your computer software, the safe or your internet bank access are all critical but you cannot then sit back and relax and think that you are fully secure.

Vigilance

When looking up safety and security tips for protecting yourself and your belongings you will see that most of the advice revolves around being vigilant and that actual security systems are really only deterrents or last resorts. There is more advice about our behavior and our awareness than there is about what security systems to install.

Below are some ways in which you can be vigilant in order to prevent employee theft:

Plan to steal from yourself

Have you ever been locked out of your own home? If so, were you surprised at how easy it was for you to break in to your house? Looking at your home security from the point of view of a criminal changes how you think about your security and helps you to attend to any security vulnerabilities that may be present.

In the same way if you were a dishonest employee how would you steal from your own business? Ensure that you pay special attention to any areas of your business that offer employees an opportunity to steal.

Write down a list of all possible weaknesses and start looking for any patterns that look out of place. Obvious areas (or processes) are things like sales transactions paid by cash, gift vouchers, day end cash up procedures, stock control, manipulating of computerized transactions after the time and banking procedures.

Use Visible Surveillance

Visible surveillance, like cameras, are one way to deter employees from stealing. Placing the camera near your point of sale computer system is preferable as it shows things like whether the employee actually entered the sale into the computer, whether they gave a receipt to the client or whether they put the cash into the cash draw.

Analyse your data

If you’ve done the exercise of “planning to steal from yourself” as mentioned above then you will have some ideas of where employees are possibly stealing from you.

It is your responsibility to analyse your data in order to detect possible theft. Looking for patterns of behavior is important. If you pick up something suspicious then let staff know that there seem to be some odd patterns and are they able to shed any light. This alone could deter theft as staff members then know that you are scrutinizing their work and will be less likely to try and steal from you.

Alternate responsibilities

Try and avoid giving too much or sold responsibility to one person. Rather try and rotate tasks between employees so that it is more difficult to conceal the fact that they may be stealing. Also this will help to highlight different patterns between employees work as you analyse your data.

Conclusion (and catch)

Theft has been with us from the beginning of time and will be with us until the end of time. As we invent ways of protecting our belongings we invent ways of getting what we want (which often includes stealing it).

A combination of security measures and vigilance is the best way for you to limit the effects of theft on your business, whether from external criminals or internal employees.

However, when considering theft in your own business and the idea that someone may be stealing from you, look in the mirror ask the same things of yourself. Are you hiding money from the tax man? Are you paying all your suppliers what you owe them? Are you paying your staff a fair salary? These things may seem less harmful and distasteful than putting your hands in the til but they still end up in someone receiving less than what is due to them, whether by law or in fairness and in conscience.