Whether it’s hundreds of dollars or millions of them, an employee theft investigation can be stressful and complicated to manage for any employer. Whilst a few missing office supplies will not warrant much concern, theft in the workplace does not need to be extreme to cause long-lasting consequences for the organisation. For this reason, all allegations or suspicions of theft should be addressed seriously to minimise any potential damage. An employee theft investigation should be commenced as soon as there are reasonable grounds to do so – with 88% of theft cases including attempts to conceal the fraud, how soon you begin could mean all the difference in the investigation’s outcome

An employee theft investigation can reveal an organisation’s vulnerabilities

Before we delve into the specifics of conducting an employee theft investigation, an important aspect to keep in mind throughout is looking out for any motives or driving factors that could have pushed the employee into making such a decision.

Whilst it may be convenient to assume a worker only steals due to greed or simply ‘because they can’, this is not always the case and is a shallow interpretation that fails to capture the true complexity behind many cases. Opportunity is only one component of the fraud triangle, a model that examines why people may commit fraud, and it’s important to step back and look at all the factors together.

Attempting to look deeper into the decision during the employee theft investigation can aid employers to protect their organisation from future attempts, particularly if any of the causes relate to the company’s organisational processes that can be improved and strengthened.

Taking note of the situation’s context (this could involve the employee’s financial struggles, security vulnerabilities in the company or simply a predisposition to thieving) will shape how your company recovers and grows from the incident. 

For example, if the employee theft investigation reveals obvious holes in the company’s internal controls that encouraged the individual to thieve, they need to be patched up before someone else exploits them.In another example, an employee theft investigation may not reveal any such cause and this may mean needing to revise your employee screening, recruitment and management processes. 

Steps to include in your employee theft investigation

1. Assessing the need for an employee theft investigation

The first step in any case of theft is to examine the circumstances and resulting need for an employee theft investigation to occur. As discussed earlier, some cases may not warrant the time and resources that an investigation requires. However, it may be possible that you decide to investigate smaller incidents to set an employee standard and discourage more serious cases of theft. This is why this first step is an important one that provides the employer and other relevant authorities in management/HR an opportunity to set out their objectives and aims for the rest of the employee theft investigation.

At this stage, depending on the nature of the theft, seeking legal advice may be wise to help guide the process and ensure the company’s protection. If your organisation has insurance of any form, it will also be important to notify them of your intentions and any relevant details.

2. Confidentiality and safety

Ensuring confidentiality and taking steps to make sure that any suspected employees are not subjected to ill-treatment is critical to the integrity of the investigation. Discretion is key and lacking it can lead to serious legal consequences in the future. People can make hasty conclusions based on office gossip or what little information they are privy to and this can be injurious to all involved parties. You can offer employees being investigated protection in various ways but typically, the worker is temporarily reassigned to a different team or advised to take a leave of absence whilst the employee theft investigation is carried out.

3. Conducting employee interviews

Regardless of the various processes and steps your company’s employee theft investigation involves, conducting interviews will be one of the most challenging aspects of the entire proceedings. The interview can be approached in many different ways but this should be decided and planned beforehand – one popular and effective option you can look into is the P.E.A.C.E model.

The interview will be one of the only opportunities for the employee in question to share their perspectives and for the employer to ask important questions about their involvement. Making sure that it is hosted with the aim of an open and honest conversation rather than an attempt to pressure or coerce the employee into a confession should be prioritised. Additionally, it is also crucial to document the interview (with the employee’s consent) correctly and with adequate detail so you may refer back to it as the investigation progresses.

4. Disciplinary action

Once a conclusion has been reached with the employee theft investigation, if a worker has been found guilty there must be some form of disciplinary action taken in accordance with company policy. If the theft involves extremely large sums of money or is a repeated case of theft, termination may be considered. In such cases, having the investigation and evidence clearly recorded is important in the scenario that your decision is questioned.

However, its likely cases will consist of smaller theft and you’ll have to seek alternative forms of discipline such as suspension, demotion or requesting restitution.

What Can You Do to Prevent Theft?

Whilst having an employee theft investigation model in place is necessary, avoiding having to conduct them altogether would be ideal. Realistically speaking, theft can’t be prevented in its entirety but there are strong measures you can establish within the workplace that discourage employees from attempting fraud. This can include:

  • Within your employee contract include actions such as automatic suspension or dismissal that are enforceable in cases of employee theft
  • Have a strong reporting system in place that employees can use to report theft anonymously (remember that this does not mean you should automatically assign guilt to every accused person)
  • Actively discourage theft and foster a workplace environment that has zero tolerance for fraud
  • During induction and other training opportunities, discuss employee theft in detail and explain the consequences of theft as well as the organisation’s stance on the matter
  • Have a strong employee screening process in place to identify potential red flags

Employee theft investigation can turn out to be a drawn-out, tiring process for both employer and employees. Making sure that you have a plan and steps in place to follow will allow it to go as smoothly as possible and avoid unnecessary conflict. The route you take will depend on the nature of the theft, the amount of loss and factors that are unique to your business. Regardless, including the steps above in your employee theft investigation will be necessary to eventually uncover what truly happened in as little time as possible.