If you think that your employees are above stealing from your organization, you may want to rethink things.

Making the headlines this week are two priests from Delray Beach, Florida who have been accused of stealing more than $8 million from their parish. Monsignor John Skehan, pastor of St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church for four decades, and Reverend Francis Guinan, who succeeded Skehan as pastor, three years ago, were both charged with theft going back to 2001. Among other things, funds were allegedly used to support an “intimate relationship” with a bookkeeper, and to finance gambling trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas. So much for “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Apparently Fathers Guinan and Skehan weren’t in class the day they covered the seventh commandment back at the seminary.

The point here is that if even a couple of priests can allegedly stoop to stealing from the church, it’s a sure bet that every employer is at risk for employee theft.

There are some startling statistics concerning employee theft that every HR professional should know. A number studies have been done to better understand this issue. The landmark study* conducted some twenty years ago by researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Florida indicated that as many as 4 out of 10 employees admitted to occasional theft. In addition, those who steal were more likely to exhibit counter-productive traits, such as sloppy work and breaking work rules. Other research by the US Chamber of Commerce estimates that the cost of employee theft falls someplace between $40 and $50 billion per year.

Most thefts involve petty items such as office supplies. But every employer is at risk of significant loss if proper precautions aren’t taken. Don’t rely on your instincts. Many employers make the mistake of thinking that their managers or higher paid professionals wouldn’t steal. Wrong. While larcenous employees may be a small minority, they cut a wide swathe across all jobs, ages, incomes, races, religions, and sexes.

Loss prevention: Managing your risk
If your organization doesn’t have an anti-theft policy and program, run don’t walk to develop and introduce a written theft policy that outlines your organization’s commitment to honesty and integrity. The policy should clearly spell out any consequences for any employee caught stealing. Communicate this policy during employee orientations, in employee newsletters, and on bulletin board announcements. Organizations that establish and communicate a policy tend to have less theft.

Background checks also go a long way in terms of deterrence. Screening will identify some bad apples before you hire them and prescreening sends an indirect message that your organization is concerned with ensuring the highest level of integrity and security.

Finally, reduce the opportunity for theft by maintaining a regular audit program that checks all of the potential areas of loss. Build in checks and balances and paper trails. Trust, but verify, as the saying goes.
Our experience shows time and again that employers who communicate often and well with their employees and who work diligently to maintain a healthy work culture experience fewer workplace behavioral problems than their mistrusting, suspicious counterparts. Keep things in perspective. Dishonest employees are in the minority so don’t cast a pall of suspicion over everyone. Set the policy and the expectation, ensure that risk control measures are in place, and be fair and consistent in the way policies are enforced.

* Deterrence in the Workplace: Perceived Certainty, Perceived Severity, and Employee Theft by Richard G. Hollinger, University of Florida and John P. Clark, University of Minnesota (available for purchase or through free trial subscription).

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