Theft in the workplace: lessons learned the hard way

Our company receptionist was asked to keep the business open while all other employees left to attend an annual two-day staff retreat off premises. On the afternoon of the first day, a woman entered the office to report that there was a serious problem in the public-use hallway restroom; she’d smelled either a gas leak or a sewage problem that she thought should be investigated and reported to authorities. The receptionist immediately went with the woman to check it out but she found nothing out of the ordinary. Then, at closing time, she discovered that her purse had been stolen, most likely by the woman’s accomplice.

This is a true story about what can (and did) happen when an employee is left alone at their place of employment. There was no obvious negligence on the part of the company – the business was not situated in a high-crime area nor had there been any previous thefts in the building. We didn’t run a high-risk business nor were there any known threats against the business or reported domestic violence issues. Our employee handbook told employees to leave valuables at home and stated that we weren’t liable for theft of personal items. That’s a great defense for the business, but there is still a moral obligation to keep employees as safe as possible.

After that incident, we made it policy that we must have two employees scheduled to be in the office during work hours or lock the door to the public – that was our first takeaway lesson.

The second lesson: if personal items can be this easily stolen, then company items and company data were also at higher risk than we’d estimated. We wrote more policy about locking office doors during absences. From that day forward, too, a back entrance was locked and anyone entering the office had to stop at reception to vet their purpose before entering interior workspaces. We then provided employees with a list of emergency numbers for landlord staff with instructions to call them to investigate any problem with facilities. Our staff was to call in reports; not to investigate the truth of those reports.

Our receptionist was understandably shaken after the incident and after reporting it to the police. But beyond feeling embarrassed that she’d been fooled and furious that she’d have to replace credit cards and her driver’s license, she didn’t report any acute or long-term distress. If she had, we would have helped her find the appropriate resources. In fact, employees who become the victims of a crime in the workplace (including theft or robbery) may be able to claim workers’ compensation benefits, including payment of medical bills, counseling, out-of-pocket expenses (medication, bandages, etc.), and about two-thirds of any lost wages.

When an employee falls victim to theft at work, regardless of the culprit, the employer is legally responsible to replace any work-related items. Beyond that, personal items are not covered unless the employee can show gross or willful negligence. However, there is the ethical treatment of employees and a growing need for hyper-vigilance about their personal safety. In retrospect, we all are lucky when any employee working in isolation only loses the contents of a purse.

Safety — something to reconsider in most offices.

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.


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