Handle theft problem carefully

Dear Joan:
We are a small office with three employees. About one year ago two of us began noticing money missing from our purses. We know who the person is who has been doing this but have been unable to catch him in the act. Our office is set up so that if one of us leaves to go to the bathroom or whatever, the other person cannot see into the office of the person that is gone.

We discussed this problem with the owners of the company who told us that we should confront this individual and tell him that we know what he has been doing, however, since we have to continue to work with this person, and know that he'll deny having taken the money it would not be easy to continue working with this person. We were also told by one of the owners that we should lock our purses up or take them with us when we leave our desks. He cannot be fired unless he is caught and we have been unable to catch him in the act. We think that he has a gambling problem.

For the past several weeks, we have been locking up our purses, but this shouldn't be necessary in a small place like this, we feel that we should be able to trust our fellow employees who we considered as friends.

We don't know how to handle this situation. What advice would you give us on this?

Your co-worker must have a serious and compulsive problem if he is taking money from two people who can easily trace the theft back to him. I agree that to confront him face-to-face will cause hard feelings and denial. It will be unbearable to work together in your small office once this happens.

Before you jump to conclusions, however, consider that it may not be your co-worker who is stealing the money. I spoke with police authorities who handle cases such as this and they recommend that you first do a little detective work of your own by answering the following questions:

1.      Does anyone else have access to the office? (managers, other employees, delivery people, spouses of employees, etc.)

2.      Has it ever happened when one of the other women has been left alone with the purses?

3.      What is the traffic pattern of the office? Who else walks through? (messengers, cleaning personnel, etc.)

4.      Analyze the pattern. Did it happen on payday? Always before noon? When you've returned from the bank? If your co-worker knows when petty cash is available, it makes the risk worthwhile.

5.      Set up informal guidelines about who has access to what. There may be implied consent because of past practice. For instance, if all three of you borrow money from one another or allow others to go into your desk, a precedent has been set. You may want to involve management in setting this policy.

6.      If you do all of these things and you still think it is your co-worker, call the police. They will work with you to set up a way to catch the thief. By marking bills with an indelible ink, stolen bills can stain the thief's hands and literally catch him or her "red handed."

Before you do this, however, talk to top management about what will be done if you do catch the thief. Often, the person will be terminated in addition to facing criminal charges. It must be understood that whoever is caught will be treated exactly the same. If it's your boss or your co-worker, they must face the same consequences, or the company could risk being sued.

7.      Another possible alternative is to confront him and let him save face at the same time. Leave your purses behind with one dollar in each of them, the next time you leave the room. Attached to each of the dollar bills staple the following message:

"Dear friend:
I know you have been taking money out of my wallet. I am disappointed and hurt that you would destroy my trust in you as a friend. I suspect that you would not be doing this if you were not having a problem with gambling or some other problem. Please help yourself overcome this problem and restore your self-respect and my trust in you. If you don't, you will be caught and you will lose your job.

Please get help for your problems. I care about you. Please care about yourself."

In the end, someone is stealing and needs to be stopped. The thefts are likely going beyond your purses to the coffee money, office equipment and even confidential records that could be sold. You can't continue to work in this atmosphere of distrust and you have the right to see these thefts stopped.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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