September 16, 2013

How to deal with theft in the workplace

A recent survey suggests that 25% of employees have stolen items from their employers. Worryingly, 12% of respondents admitted to stealing over £1,000 worth of goods from their employers. 50% admitted that they would steal items if they believed they would not get caught.

What should you do if you suspect theft?

You discover the theft of a laptop and suspicion falls on a number of employees. How could you investigate and discipline each employee fairly? Do you discipline some or the whole group? If you’re not sure who did it, can you dismiss at all?

Theft is obviously an act of gross misconduct. When you believe that a number of employees could be responsible, you must ensure that your investigation is as comprehensive as possible. All leads should be followed, and the employees' explanations properly investigated.

What if, at the end of this investigation, you have narrowed it down to two or three suspects, one of whom must have done it? As an employer you are obviously in a difficult position. You are not sure who the thief is, and you will not want to dismiss innocent employees. But equally you cannot have employees stealing from you.

If there is one of a group of employees who could have committed a serious offence but the culprit is unidentifiable, it may be fair to dismiss the group on a “reasonable suspicion” which is short of “actual belief”.

The legal test is this:

  1. an act which would justify a dismissal has been committed
  2. the employer has carried out a reasonable investigation and followed a proper procedure
  3. the employer reasonably believed that more than one person could have committed the act
  4. the employer identifies those who could have committed the act
  5. the employer cannot reasonably identify the perpetrator

Alternatively, if you choose to dismiss some and not others - the fact that one or more of them was not dismissed does not render the dismissal of the remainder of the employees unfair, provided the employer has grounds for differentiating between members of the group.

The key is ensuring that you follow a fair process and that your responses are proportionate. The degree to which you should investigate is dependent on the circumstances, but bear in mind that the stigma of dishonesty is such that a thorough and balanced investigation must be undertaken.

If you need assistance or advice any theft in the workplace issues, please contact our Employment law team.

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