This afternoon, I returned to my chilly office to discover that my desk heater was absent. After a quick root round, it became clear that someone had borrowed it for a meeting room yesterday and forgot to return it. The mystery was solved and I’m back to being blasted with lovely, soothing warm air once again!
However, the experience did serve as a reminder of the number of times over the years when employers have phoned to obtain advice about thefts in the workplace. And, no, I don’t mean borrowing items and forgetting to return them, as in the much tamer world of Canter Levin and Berg but, rather, intending to steal items. Obviously, this can occur either against the Company’s property or between colleagues.
So, how can an employer turn up the heat in pursuing a potential thief?
Well, firstly, they must investigate and seek to collect evidence. Obviously, the employer should have a proportionate response depending on the item in question – i.e. there is no need for an Apprentice-style interrogation of each member of staff on that floor over a missing packet of jelly babies! But, in the same vein, a more in-depth approach will be required if an employee’s mobile phone or valuable Company property goes missing. In terms of evidence, witnesses to people entering that particular room or area and/or CCTV can usually prove very helpful.
Once the employer has a rough idea of what has happened, they may have a list of potentially involved individuals. If so, it is about giving those individuals a chance to explain their movements and question them rather than presuming guilt and taking action. So, for example, if an individual is caught stealing on CCTV camera and the employer instantly dismisses them on the spot, that is technically Unfair Dismissal because the employee is still entitled to a Disciplinary Hearing and the chance to put forward an explanation. Some employers may think this counterproductive or, to phrase it another way, to be a load of hot air, but following due process in this way avoids the individual having any real recourse.
On many occasions, the investigation won’t produce enough evidence to be able to hold that one particular individual was responsible. Instead, most employers will end the process with an idea as to who was probably involved but without sufficient proof for a formal disciplinary sanction. In this situation, particularly where it relates to a certain part of the workplace, CCTV is a useful, and increasingly cheap, solution.
However, employers can sometimes get burnt by covertly putting CCTV into place and not warning employees of this. Again, this may sound counterproductive, but installing covert CCTV without first informing staff is very likely to result in a Human Rights breach and make it potentially risky to rely on that evidence to bring a formal sanction (which, at the end of the day, is the very point of installing the CCTV). So, to avoid being charred by a potential legal claim, an employer should always warn their employees by, firstly, informing them in writing of the installation of the CCTV and, additionally, putting an appropriate sign in the workplace warning of ‘CCTV monitoring’.
Different solutions will suit different employers and it is useful to obtain legal advice when confronting the above issues but, all in all, the objective will be the same: avoiding workplace tension boiling over by actively preventing and stopping theft.