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Theft is no reason to violate an employee’s rights

Imagine you were working as a clerk in a grocery store, and your manager suspected you of stealing some product off the shelf. She has no concrete evidence, only hearsay from a co-worker. An investigation turns up nothing, and you continue working as though nothing had happened. But the manager notified your employer, and your employer added your name to a database of suspected employee thieves, which all sorts of retailers of all sizes subscribe to in order to avoid hiring persons of questionable character.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Well, according to the New York Times, the databases exist in the United States, and they are legal, even though they “often contain scant details about suspected thefts and routinely do not involve criminal charges.”

Some of the employees, who submit written statements after being questioned by store security officers, have no idea that they admitted committing a theft or that the information will remain in databases…

Not surprisingly:

 …the databases… are facing scrutiny from labor lawyers and federal regulators, who worry they are so sweeping that innocent employees can be harmed. The lawyers say workers are often coerced into confessing, sometimes when they have done nothing wrong, without understanding that they will be branded as thieves.

It seems unimaginable to me that a reasonably democratic country could allow such a system to exist. I can only assume that in Canada it would never meet the standard of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) or other provincial privacy laws, which at its most fundamental level requires a person’s consent to collect, use or disclose personal information, and it is clear that that is what’s at play in these databases.

The issue here is not information about convictions for theft (that have not been pardoned). That is information that businesses in Canada can legitimately access through police record checks, and that persons convicted of theft can reasonably expect to be part of such checks. The problem with these databases is persons being considered guilty of a crime without due process, and the disclosure of their personal information without their consent.

A lawyer representing a worker who was rejected for a retail job because her name was in one of these databases told the Times, “The database is ‘a secret blacklist,’ … The employees don’t know about it until they have already been hurt.”

In addition, employers that refuse to hire persons based on such information are clearly violating human rights law.

I also see a major problem that doesn’t explicitly invoke the law. I don’t doubt that employee theft is a significant issue for retailers, but I don’t understand how an employer would actively persecute and stigmatize an employee for even a minor theft, without considering the reasons behind the behaviour. Surely, some employees are prone to theft, regardless of their work conditions, but it is absurd to even suggest that all employees that steal have this disposition.

The Globe and Mail discussed last year some of the reasons employees steal. For instance:

Stephen O’Keefe, vice-president of operations for the Retail Council of Canada, says that employee theft often boils down to “need, greed or opportunity.” … The holiday season can drive financially strapped employees to top up their funds with a little extra from company coffers.

A report commissioned by the Retail Council found, “many small businesses might unwittingly help to bring on the problem themselves with lax internal policies and procedures and by failing to perform sufficient background checks on staff.”

A chief privacy officer at a security company suggests “Employees may also be driven to undermine their employers if they feel underappreciated.”

But these reasons all come from one side of the theft equation. What about employees? Surely asking them why they have stolen something will provide the best insight into employee theft.

At any rate, businesses should use information from a variety of sources in their efforts to curtail employee theft. But they must ensure that information is legitimate! Taking advice solely from industry associations, security consultants and similar organizations will likely lead to an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. A healthy work environment—one in which employees are less likely to want to steal from their employer—will be inclined to respect and open communication between employees, management and owners. The Globe touches on this indirectly, suggesting that employers “Create an environment where everyone has enough self-preservation to know that one person’s actions could cost everyone in the company their livelihood.”

But I found some more valuable and just plain sensible advice courtesy a veterinarian. For example:

  • Vary employees’ routines; that is, try to make employees’ work interesting, and help them avoid getting bored
  • Enforce mandatory vacations; employees need breaks to maintain their health and wellness, and these breaks can improve their feelings toward their employers; moreover, employers aren’t ingratiating themselves to employees by discouraging them from taking vacations or encouraging them to work when they don’t want to
  • Know your employees, and actually talk to them; show them you respect their work, and help them to understand how employee theft affects them and their fellow employees

If your employees are unhappy, isn’t it better to know why, and work to remedy the situation, rather than treating them all like suspected thieves?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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