Like most things we do, crime also has a beginning and an ending.  For some, it starts very early in life as a learned trait. For others, it comes later as the result of someone else’s carelessness.  As an investigator conducting employee theft investigations, I more often see thefts being committed by employees who are overwhelmed by temptation and opportunity rather than a learned behavior. Sure, some employees are just dishonest and take a job just to steal all they can.  However, with the cases I have investigated, I find that these “predatory” employees are the exception, not the norm.

This is not to say that all employees will steal.  Some will never steal, no matter what the circumstances.  My purpose here is to discuss the somewhat natural progression of those good employees who act out of character when they commit that first theft and then go on to become just another criminal.  It’s safe to say that most of the employees I have investigated over the past ten years have started small and progressed to larger thefts. For some, this was the first time they had stolen from an employer and for others, it was just the first time they got caught.  In a lot of cases, the first theft came as a result of someone else’s carelessness.  For example, in one case I remember, an employee left her cash drawer unlocked while going to the restroom. Shortly after she returned she discovered several hundred dollars missing.  As it turned out, one of her co-workers had discovered the drawer unlocked and realized that this was an opportunity to pay a past due electric bill before her power was turned off.  This employee later confessed that this was her fourth time to commit this type of theft.  She had started a few weeks earlier when she stole five dollars with which to buy gas, and then progressed to the theft that got her caught. 

In some cases the employee’s first theft came as a result of a weakness they discovered in the company’s internal controls.  An example of this would be the time the employee discovered his cash register was ten dollars over, and to avoid being counseled for poor cash handling, the employee put the money into the tip jar.  This employee’s first theft occurred partly as a result of the company’s practice of having cashiers verify their own deposits.  In this case, after seeing that no one noticed the missing ten dollars, the employee began failing to ring up sales intentionally in order to create an overage in the cash drawer that was then pocketed at the end of his shift.  When interviewed about similar thefts, the employee confessed to stealing almost fifteen hundred dollars over a period of three months.

Even in cases where an employee intentionally creates the first theft, you might see this same pattern of progression. I found this to be true in one of the largest employee thefts I have investigated.  The thefts started when an employee began recruiting co-workers into a theft scheme that cost the company losses estimated to be over one hundred thousand dollars.  In this case, the thefts started small, with two employees working in collusion with a customer to steal two hundred fifty dollars two or three times a week.  When the thefts were discovered, the group then consisted of five employees working with a customer to steal four to five thousand dollars several days a week.  One of the interesting things about this case was that all of the employees recruited by the first one stated that they only got involved because they owed the first employee several thousand dollars in gambling debts. However, they all admitted that after paying off their debts, they continued to be involved and were paid a large sum of money. 

In each of the cases above, what started small progressed to larger thefts primarily out of greed more than need.  It is not uncommon for employees who commit continued thefts to be living well beyond their means.  In fact, in a lot of cases, this greed and desire to have more is what ultimately gets them caught. I heard it best described by an employee I was interviewing. After confessing to several thousand dollars in thefts, he told me that “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.”  He, of course, was referring to the fact that he, too, had become greedy and had started taking more and more until someone noticed.

As a business owner or manager, you should always take note of any suspicious activity, even if it seems like an innocent mistake, and watch for other similar “mistakes”. Rotating duties is another good way to look for problems within your business, evaluate and analyze the performances of each area within your business after someone new has worked in the position. See if this brings out any red flags or if there is an unexplained increase in revenue.