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To Catch A Thief

18 Mar, 2001 imageSource

To Catch A Thief

It hurts everyone, customers, fellow employees, and the bottom line. It is a plague on all business. Those who sell stolen goods and those who buy from those who steal hurt everyone.

I share these facts with you anonymously, partly out of regret, partly out of respect for my company, mostly out of keeping my word to the employee who continually lied to me. I also understand the way the judicial system errs on the side of labor over management.

Here are the facts as I saw them. I hired a tech that had been fired by his previous employer for stealing parts and supplies. I openly talked to this technician about his history. I offered to give him another chance. He never admitted to stealing from his previous employer.

Mistake 1: I hired a known thief.

Mistake 2: I hired him at an hourly pay below the going rate. I rationalized that I was having him pay back in advance for the parts he might steal in the future. I took advantage of the situation, knowing he was in a desperate need of a job.

Mistake 3: I promised myself I would keep a close watch on his car stock inventory. Besides, with his low salary it was OK if he stole a little.

Mistake 4: When, during an end of the year inventory, an entire case of drums (with a value of over $10,000) was missing, my thoughts immediately turned to my tech with the history of pilfering. However, I had no proof. I resolved to keep a closer eye on things.

Mistake 5: Periodically, an inappropriate part would be ordered to this tech’s employee number. When I questioned him, he would always deny any knowledge of ordering the expensive part that was not needed by any of his assigned service calls. “Someone else must have ordered the part by mistake and referenced it to his territory.”

Mistake 6: For almost five years I lived with the knowledge he was stealing from the company. No bullet, but often a smoking gun, that is, I could never really prove my suspicions. My gut reaction remained. I knew he was guilty.

Mistake 7: Periodically I would call him into the office. I would question his frequent inventory adjustments: a PM kit he never received, a main board he had not known of, a drum or two the computer had assigned to him in error. His monthly inventory had more downward adjustments than a dozen other techs. He would look straight in my eyes and mournfully bemoan the cloud of suspicions that hovered over his head. Sometimes he would even shed a tear of sorrow. It was so unfair that he was always being singled out for suspicions. He knew he had shown youthful indiscretion in this previous job, but he had always walked the straight and narrow since being hired.

Mistake 8: I never did really believe him, but I am not the confrontational type. Intellectually I knew he was a thief, but emotionally I didn’t want to deal with it. So I didn’t.

Mistake 9: We moved many of our costly, easy to steal, parts farther from the warehouse door and the service department. Subconsciously I thought that at least I would make it a little more difficult for him to get the parts he wanted to steal.

Mistake 10: My suspicions became so strong (another $10,000 worth of drums did not show up in our last inventory), and after that, I actually went out and bought a self-inking stamp with our company name, address and phone number. I wanted to put “stolen from” on the stamp in addition to our name and address but I settled for name and address only. We started stamping the boxes of many of our high priced items that were stored in our warehouse. I’m not sure whom I was trying to fool. Whoever was buying the stolen goods from our tech certainly knew where he worked and how he was getting the fenced items.

Finally, Resolution Of A Bad Situation
This game of cat and mouse went on for over 5 years. I’m not quite sure if I was the cat or the mouse. In either case, we lost a lot of cheese while I was trying to convince myself that all was well.

Then it happened. Without going into details, (to keep me from being sued for defamation of character, or falsely accusing someone or who knows what else a lawyer could use in forming a suit) we caught him. We had proof!

It was a few days before a holiday weekend. It happened on a Friday afternoon. I had the entire weekend to figure out what to do. Do I accuse? Do I ask? Do I just fire him? Rather than being excited, I was sick to my stomach all weekend. My wife couldn’t understand why I was so upset. “You finally caught him. You should be happy,” she kept reminding me. Different thoughts haunted me. Was I going to ruin his family’s vacation? What would he tell his wife, his children or his mom and dad? Here I was agonizing over the fact I had finally caught the thief and all the while, I knew he had been stealing from the company for years.

So, I read a few articles I had filed away and how to fire someone. One article cautioned, “The more guilty he is, the more likely there might be some negative effects on the company”. The last thing I needed was to fire the guy today and have a lawsuit on my desk tomorrow for illegal termination of employment. I took the time to write out a script. I wanted every word I said to him on Monday morning to be direct, to the point, non-judgmental, just the facts, quick and clean. I read my termination script aloud several times. I had it down pat. There was no emotion in my voice, just the facts, no discussion. He could just leave quietly.

The Final Conversation

Monday morning came early. I had not slept well (one of the worst parts of management is this firing stuff. Every time you have to fire someone you hired, you must face the awful truth that you did not do that hiring part of your job correctly). I arrived at the office before 7:00. The wayward employee was already waiting in the parking lot. The meeting was short. My evidence was irrefutable. The thief was surprised at the speed in which his termination was announced. We had had these talks so many times before. Each time before, he had left the room as an employee. This time he left as a former employee.

The entire encounter took less than 3 minutes. Termination papers were signed. A supervisor escorted him to his car. His parts stock was removed from his car. He was gone in under ten minutes. His parting words were “I shouldn’t have.” My parting thoughts were “You did.”

I wrote this article part as a healing process. I think about the injustice of our entire 5-year relationship. I had hired him, knowing he was a thief. I had always thought of him as a thief. Regretfully, he had lived up to my expectations.

A few days later, another dealer called for references on the thief (since under the laws of my state, I am not allowed to tell the truth of our relationship. I now know how a lawyer feels when he must defend someone he knows is guilty) all I could do was to provide my former tech’s starting and ending dates and the position he held during his employment.

Unfortunately, He got the job. He may very well be working for someone who is reading this right now. Try to learn from the mistake I made and remember a leopard rarely changes the colors of his spots.

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