Among 25 European nations surveyed on levels of employee theft by the Centre for Retail Research, the UK came second behind Iceland. The concept of workplace thievery embraces a range of crimes, from a clammy hand dipped in the till or a fiver light-fingeredly lifted from the petty cash box, through to using the franking machine for sending the family’s Christmas cards or adding a few extra miles onto the petrol expenses.
As a employer, you may not be particularly concerned by some of the above, but it’s worth bearing in mind that if such misdeeds occur by a number of staff over a lengthy period significant amounts of cash could be seeping out of your coffers. It could also be argued that the typical workplace circumstance makes stealing too easy; companies often do not have controls in place to prevent it, meaning employees can purloin paper, tools, products, parts and cash. And, for those employees with a flexible philosophy on ownership, inequality in remuneration provides a good justification for theft.
Security measures such as installing CCTV cameras or employing guards are probably out of the scope of most small businesses and are inappropriate in most situations. They can create an oppressive atmosphere and hinder both productivity and creativity, but in some cases they might be warranted. Tony McPhillips, head of employment at solicitor Robert Muckle, says the right to search employees should be a contractual priority. ‘You need to give yourself a fighting chance: you’re on a hiding to nothing if you don’t set out guidelines for the right to search. You’ve also got to have the right to suspend. If there’s an incident you need to be able to suspend staff, then interview people concerned and take statements.
‘The important thing is letting people know what’s acceptable,’ he adds. ‘Is one personal phone call okay but two not? I had one case where 180 phone calls were made in a week to a mobile phone number and another where someone was looking for tickets for the final of the Rugby World Cup and they called up a prize hotline 3,500 times!’
Trust no one?
Accountants PKF believe one crime to which growing businesses are particularly vulnerable is fraud, mainly of the transition zone between being a small trust-based organisation and a larger entity with more formal procedures and internal controls. ‘It is said that in London you are never more than six feet away from a rat,’ digresses PKF partner David Dearman. ‘A similar analogy can be made between an owner-manager and the incidence of business fraud. As the typical fraudster is a long-serving male director or senior manager between 40 and 50 years old, who works in the finance department, owner-managers are likely to be uncomfortably close to the ‘rat’ that could be gnawing away at their business.’