I spent 16 years working in retail loss prevention, and I am Wicklander-Zulawski-certified to interview dishonest retail employees.
Consequences of Retail Employee Theft
Retail theft is a crime not restricted to the average customer, career criminal or peer-pressured teen. Register operators, stock associates and even managers steal daily from their Walmart, Target or Kmart stores, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the companies that provide them with a paycheck.
Dishonest employees exist in every industry, and businesses have procedures in place to deal with employee theft. Since my background is in retail Loss Prevention (LP), this article will pertain only to dishonest retail employees.
Things You Didn't Know About Retail Employee Theft
- Loss Prevention spends more time watching employees than customers.
- Loss Prevention keeps track of shortages in the store's cash registers. They are aware of where employees place their handbags and jackets, and they watch them leave (and return) from their break or lunch. If they're smart, they will also make it their business to see who their spouse/partner and family members are.
- Loss Prevention may let an employee steal numerous times before they interview them for theft.
- When an employee is brought in for an interview, they will have no idea they are about to be questioned for theft.
- Before a suspect sits down for an interview, Loss Prevention will already know about most of what they have stolen, but they will use various methods, interrogation tricks and other interview tactics to see if they will admit to other thefts.
- A suspected dishonest employee can get up and walk out at any time during the interview.
- Even though an employee has been stealing from the company for some time and LP has enough evidence to prosecute, they may have to wait to interview.
- A dishonest employee will ALWAYS lose their job when they admit to internal theft.
- Until the police arrive at the end of the interview, you won't know you are about to go to jail.
- When LP doesn't have enough video evidence against an employee but has enough paper evidence, the employee will still lose their job.
What to Know About Retail Employee Theft
Now let's go through the above items in more detail.
1. Loss Prevention spends more time watching employees than customers.
A dishonest employee can (and will) cause more loss to your store than a shoplifter. When a dishonest employee is caught and prosecuted, it also acts as an effective (but temporary) theft deterrent to other employees.
2. Loss Prevention keeps track of shortages in the store's cash registers. They are aware of where employees place their handbags and jackets, and they watch them leave (and return) from their break or lunch. If they're smart, they will also make it their business to see who their spouse/partner and family members are.
It's part of an LP agent's job to not only keep track of cash coming into the store but leaving in someone's pockets. If their paperwork shows a pattern of cash missing from a cash register, investigators will aim a camera at the cashier and watch them work for several shifts to see if they can figure out how he/she is pocketing the money. They also watch as workers leave for lunch or a break to make sure unpaid store merchandise is not leaving with them. They want to know who friends and family are so they can see if a cashier discounts merchandise for them at the point of purchase.
3. Loss Prevention may let an employee steal numerous times before they interview them for theft.
To build a bigger, airtight case against them, LP investigators may require several incidents of theft on video before they interview. Some companies even require multiple incidents of theft on video before they will allow an employee to be questioned. Living in a world where we take each other to court over the smallest things, the store wants to make sure their case against their employee is incontestable.
4. When an employee is brought in for an interview, they will have no idea they are about to be questioned for theft.
When it comes time to interview a suspected dishonest associate, LP will have their reports, paperwork and (sometimes) the worker's final paycheck and dismissal papers prepared in advance. A manager or member of Human Resources will page the suspect to an empty office or other private area and, when they enter, they will see a Loss Prevention Investigator sitting in a chair with an empty seat in front of them. The investigator will ask the suspect to sit down, facing him/her, and they begin the interview by saying they would like to review some shrink (loss) procedures with the employee A store manager (or Human Resources manager) will sit behind the suspected dishonest employee to act as a witness.
5. Before a suspect sits down for an interview, Loss Prevention will already know about most of what they have stolen, but they will use various methods, interrogation tricks and other interview tactics to see if they will admit to other thefts.
It is Loss Prevention's job to recoup as much money as they can for the company, and they are going to use every resource at their disposal to get a suspect to admit to prior thefts, not part of the original investigation. They will also ask if the employee has any knowledge concerning other employees who may have stolen from the store.
6. A suspected dishonest employee can get up and walk out at any time during the interview.
Loss Prevention investigators are not police officers and cannot forcibly detain someone. They are retail employees. An employee does not have to sit and speak with them. they may leave whenever they wish. This doesn't save someone from being arrested/prosecuted, however. LP can always share their evidence with the police and press charges later.
7. Even though an employee has been stealing from the company for some time and LP has enough evidence to prosecute, they may have to wait to interview.
The needs of the business come first. For example, I once had a service desk clerk who worked for the company for 30 years, and she was excellent at her job. She had also been stealing $20 daily from the company for an undetermined amount of time, but a decision was made to keep her on the payroll over the busy holiday shopping season. She was interviewed after the new year, admitted to stealing cash, and was immediately fired.
8. A dishonest employee will ALWAYS lose their job when they admit to internal theft.
There are usually no exceptions.
9. Until the police arrive at the end of the interview, you won't know you are about to go to jail.
Loss Prevention needs an employee's cooperation. If they suspect they may be arrested, they will have no reason to speak with anyone. Once the investigator has a signed confession, they will signal the witness. The witness will leave the room and call the police. The employee does not know they are being arrested until the police enter the room.
10. When LP doesn't have enough video evidence against an employee but has enough paper evidence, the employee will still lose their job.
No company has the time, resources or personnel to investigate someone forever. If the store can terminate an employee for other infractions (tardiness, insubordinate behavior, rudeness to customers, etc.), they will take that route. If not, they will shorten the employee hours until they are forced to leave and take another job. The worker will never be accused of (or charged with) stealing, but they will no longer be employed.
Anyone Can Steal
It's difficult for many to believe: the kindly, grandmotherly-type woman who has been working at the customer service desk of your favorite store has been embezzling thousands of dollars from her employer over the past 30 years. Or the bright young manager walked out with a 32-inch TV in a shopping cart in front of everyone without being questioned.
The 17-year-old kids who are responsible for making sure the shopping carts come back into the store at closing time think nothing of helping themselves to a bottle of Coca-Cola at the end of the shift. It's just a bottle of soda, right?
Let's say, for example, our cart retriever steals two bottles of cola per shift for four shifts per week. At $1.69 per bottle (average price at the time of this article), that's over $700 per year this kid is taking from the store. Between internal/external theft, paperwork mistakes, unnecessary waste and people just plain ol' not caring about the company that pays their bills, are you still wondering why razor blades and over-the-counter medications are so expensive?
Everyone who works in a retail environment is a suspect when merchandise goes missing, from the truck driver who delivers the store's merchandise to the cashier who rang out your Rice Krispies.
After 16 years in Loss Prevention, I've apprehended and interviewed countless dishonest employees, and I've heard every possible excuse why someone has stolen on the job.
- "I don't get paid enough and have too many bills."
- "I didn't get my raise, so I decided to take money from the register."
- "The managers make me work every weekend, so I stole to get back at them."
- "It was right in front of me, so I took it."
- "My children needed new back-to-school clothing, and I didn't have any money."
Loss Prevention employees are not exempt from criminal activity, either. I once replaced someone who was stealing DVDs and CDs by removing the discs and storing the plastic covers inside the office air duct.
Common LP Tricks and Tactics Used During an Employee Interview
- When an employee is about to be interviewed for theft issues, the investigator will shake their hand to determine if it is cold or sweaty. These are possible signs the employee is nervous or apprehensive.
- The investigator may ask the worker to recite their phone number and the spelling of their last name. What they are doing is attempting to determine if a suspect's voice is shaky, higher pitched, or if they stutter. Again, signs they are possibly nervous. Investigators will take notice of a suspect's body language and the movement of their eyes as questioning begins. If the investigator asks a question and the person's eyes go up, and to the left, they are searching their brain for an honest answer. If your eyes go up and to the right, they are searching the creative part of the brain for a lie. If they avoid eye contact completely, they are usually lying.
- The folder in front of the investigator will be stacked with paper, making the suspect think they have an extremely large case against them. However, most of those sheets of paper will be blank. Investigators have all they need to know written on two to three sheets. 90% of an employee interview is theatrics.
- Investigators may have 3 or 4 VHS tapes/CDs on a desk close to the subject, clearly labeled with the employee's last name, identification number and social security number. These tapes will be visible to the employee, but they will never be mentioned during the interview. They're intended to intimidate and make the subject think there is multiple video evidence against them. The tapes are usually blank. During one interview, I had a small pinhole security camera on the desk next to me. It wasn't there on purpose. It was to be sent out to be repaired. While questioning an employee, she asked me what it was. I told her it was a tiny camera used to catch internal theft and could fit into places a regular camera couldn't. Her eyes didn't leave that camera for the rest of the interview. Even though it wasn't used during her investigation, she admitted to over $2,000 worth of theft. I believe that the broken camera had a lot to do with her confession.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.