When It Happens: Managing Cases of Domestic Staff Theft
Last week I wrote about preventive measures employers should take to minimize the potential for theft in their household. This week I am addressing what an employer should do in the event that theft has occurred or there is suspicion thereof. I think this last item is important. Very few employers will have the comfort of certainty when it comes to knowing who stole from them. Usually the culprit(s) are under a miasma of suspicion, which underscores the importance of how an employer approaches the matter.
Employers are wise to remember that household theft by staff carries everything from legal implications to sadly casting all staff members under a dark cloud of doubt.
If we agree that some form of household theft is inevitable, what does an employer do when it occurs? There are several schools of thought on the matter and my position is that settling on any approach depends on the scale and nature of the theft. Each of the following approaches is based on the assumption that theft did in fact occur. How to determine if theft occurred and identifying the person responsible is an extremely important matter and the subject for a future article. Here are some best practice options for employers:
No Confrontation Approach
This approach instructs the employer to remove the toxic source by simply releasing the employee. The approach argues for a non-confrontational termination where the matter of theft is not raised. With the employee gone, the employer recalibrates and institutes precautionary measures to prevent similar events from re-occurring.
The rationale behind the approach is that Ultra-High-Net-Worth individuals are vulnerable to all sorts of false accusations from disgruntled former employees including, for example, sexual harassment. A high profile employer does not want to end up on the evening news even if the accusation is spurious. Often security companies will advise clients to adopt this approach for this reason alone.
My own position on this method is that, while the problem is possibly removed, the cycle of theft will likely re-occur with the proceeding employer. Employers need to ask themselves how they would feel in that person’s shoes? Further, just because a possible culprit has been removed, there might remain a “culture of theft” within the household because the issue was never addressed directly.
Throw the Book Approach
This is the zero-tolerance response to theft. The method is clear and employees are informed about the policy as soon as they are hired. In this case the theft is reported to authorities and it is investigated. The employee is released with cause and, based on the outcome of the investigation, charges are (or are not) laid.
Depending on the jurisdiction, if there is a conviction, it will show up on any future background check on the employee. This means that future employers will be protected so long as they have the prudence to conduct a background check. In many jurisdictions, employers should be cautioned, however, that just because a background check comes back “clean and clear” does not mean that the employee has not engaged in criminal activity. It just means they have not been convicted for such activity.
My thought on the “Throw the Book Approach” is employers must exercise extreme diligence throughout. If the accusation of theft proves false, the employer opens themselves up to a wrongful dismissal suit in some jurisdictions. The outcome might be costlier than the theft itself. The “Throw the Book Approach,” in my opinion should only be exercised if there is complete certainty about the scope of theft as well as identification of the perpetrator.
The Temperate Zone
This approach preaches moderation. Many employers will choose to deal swiftly with the theft and make every effort to have the problem “go away.” In my career, I have seen this approach take on various forms. In some cases the employee is released, not for theft, but for some policy violation or for a reorganization of the staff model making the position redundant. In such cases, the employee receives pay in lieu of notice and is released in such a way that they will be able to apply for unemployment insurance.
In other cases, no cause for termination is provided. In some jurisdictions “cause” is not a requirement for termination. Under this circumstance an employee may provide a “tell” and either become belligerent while being released in a sort of "unmasking" or even raise the matter of theft themselves. I have seen both occur and in every case the employee’s behaviour was sufficient to confirm suspicion of theft.
The “Temperate Zone Approach” is a slight modification to the “No Confrontation Approach.” The difference is one of measure. In the “No Confrontation Approach” theft is not mentioned. In the “Temperate” example there is an implication of “all is not well” during the termination process.
Which approach an employer chooses should be dependent on the degree of certainty that theft has occurred and confidence in the identity of the culprit(s). An employer would be wise to consult with an employment lawyer for guidance prior to acting. The law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction so there is no “one size fits all” solution to the problem.
The moment suspicion of theft occurs, employers should start documenting everything, including all conversations, occurrences and timelines. They should also be aware that the word “theft” is highly loaded and carries risks should the employer miscalculate. So if you plan on using the term, practice caution. Further, make sure to have a witness during the termination meeting. In fact, a best practice is always to make sure to have a witness during a termination procedure. Also make sure to have all documents and pay checks ready for the termination meeting. If you have a security company, have them present. They can provide the employee with a ride home. Make sure that the employee is accompanied to collect all of their belongings. Let them know that if they forget anything, they can call and arrangements will be made to have the items delivered to them. The "break" should be clean and swift.
Finally, preventive measures, policy clarity for employees and pre-planning of procedures for handling theft when it occurs are all vital. In a perfect world, theft does not occur. But I do not need to tell any one that we do not live in a perfect world. Added to the its imperfection is the simple fact that human beings are a highly unpredictable species with unpredictable events following behavioural patterns.
If all this is enough to scare potential employers from hiring, do not let it happen. In my career, the vast majority of private service employees are honest and hard working with a singular goal of making their employers happy. In my humble opinion, that is a darn good thing.
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