I suspect an employee is stealing. What do I do?

How to navigate this tricky situation

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A veterinary practice owner writes:

I think a veterinary assistant in my practice may be stealing.

A long-standing team member alerted me to this last week, when she noticed the amount of cash in the register didn’t reconcile with our daily report, and some over the counter items are no longer on the shelf, but we have no record of them being sold.

There were a few other instances reported that always occur during this vet assistant’s shift and I believe it’s more than a coincidence.

Should I terminate her employment? 

No, not just yet.

You need to ensure you have sufficient evidence of theft before you make any accusations. Having one team member come to you with her suspicions is simply not enough. Best-case scenario, you cause drama in the practice and end up with a disgruntled employee. Worst-case scenario, you end up with an unfair dismissal claim.

Define Theft 

There are different forms of stealing that may occur in the practice: stealing intellectual property, stealing cash from the register, stealing supplies, etc. There’s “stealing hours,” i.e., submitting incorrect time sheets in order to be paid for hours not actually worked.

You could argue that stealing a notepad is not nearly as bad as stealing cash from the register, and the repercussions should therefore vary for each instance.

Review Your Practice Policies 

Does the employee handbook cover theft? Does it cover consequences of theft? Any mention of how theft will be investigated?

Follow whatever is written in your policies. If you’re thinking “I don’t have an employee handbook or written policies!” I don’t know what to tell you. This is just one of the many reasons why you should have one.

Collect Evidence 

Please do not even speak to the employee about them stealing unless you have rock-solid evidence. If they are not guilty, they are unlikely to recover from the accusation. Would you want to continue working for someone who doesn’t trust you? Particularly if we’re talking about less serious instances of theft — it’s simply not worth it.

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The best evidence is video footage of the employee stealing. If that’s not an option, do you have witnesses? By that I mean an actual witness to the act of stealing, not a fellow employee who suspects another of stealing and presents circumstantial evidence.

You can also interview other employees. Be cautious of doing this and consider again whether it is worth it. If you do decide to go ahead with it, speak to each employee individually in private. Don’t single out an employee and accuse of them something you are still trying to prove. Explain the seriousness of the situation and instruct them not to talk about it to anyone else.

Depending on the form of theft, consider other evidence such as records of transactions, timesheets or similar.

Document Everything 

As you’re gathering evidence, document everything: dates, times, witnesses, proof…

Take Action 

Let’s assume that you have gathered evidence and can prove that the employee in question was stealing.

The disciplinary action you take depends on the severity of theft, your practice policies and the employee’s previous record. Will you give a formal warning or terminate their employment?

Once you decide what action you will take, ensure that the method used to terminate is in line with your practice policies. As a minimum, I suggest having another person present during this discussion. Will you terminate their employment immediately? What other legal obligations do you have in this scenario? Consider seeking the advice of an attorney.

Do You Need to Involve the Police? 

Depending on the form of theft and the severity of it, you may need to alert the police. In addition, check federal and state legislation involving theft of prescription drugs or controlled substances.

Dealing with theft in the workplace is an incredibly difficult experience, not least because trust is broken between the employer and employees. My suggestions above are meant to serve more as a reminder of all the things you need to consider now that you’ve found yourself in this unfortunate situation, not a definitive guide on the steps you should take. If you do find evidence of theft by this vet assistant, you should seek professional guidance from an employment lawyer.

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