To avoid a messy workplace theft investigation, can we just fire our prime suspect?

Question:

Several years ago, when one of our employees was stealing from other employees’ purses and desks, we called the police.

The process — calling the police, alerting our insurance carrier and interviewing multiple employees to show fairness so we wouldn’t get sued for wrongful termination when we fired the one employee — tore apart our company.

Some of our best employees couldn’t believe we didn’t trust them. We tried to explain we had wanted to be fair, and that if we only singled certain employees, we’d stigmatize them forever, but two of our best, long-term employees were so angry they quit within a few months.

Once again, we have a problem. Several employees have reported missing small things from their desks.

These items appear to be taken at night. Since everyone has a key, the culprit could be anyone.

We suspect the new employee as the problem began soon after his hiring.

We don’t want to have to interview everyone, casting suspicion on employees we believe blameless. Can we just fire him since he’s the likely culprit?

Answer:

Employers have three options when they suspect one employee of stealing. They can file a civil suit for theft, fire the employee or file a criminal complaint.

If you terminate this employee, don’t do it “for cause” based on mere suspicion. In one famous case, Dixon v. Kargman, a trucking company partner received an anonymous call alleging an employee was stealing fuel. The partner then called the police, signed a criminal complaint for theft and also testified against the employee at a grand jury.

The police arrested the employee. The employee was indicted, but later acquitted. After his acquittal, the employee sued the trucking company and partner for malicious prosecution. The judge in a bench trial awarded the employee $45,935 in damages, ruling the partner had no probable cause when he’d instituted criminal action based on an anonymous call.

You can, however, terminate this employee “at will” or for no cause. If you choose this option, you potentially fire a newly hired employee for no reason and perhaps continue to employ a thief who seized the opportunity given an easy “fall guy.”

Additionally, with several employees missing items from their desks, you can’t keep this problem a secret. You might be best off calling the police and letting them do their job.

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5 thoughts on “To avoid a messy workplace theft investigation, can we just fire our prime suspect?

  1. Since this seems to be an ongoing issue with the company, I have two suggestions:
    One- if they have an alarm system, make sure every employee has a different code to turn it off, and make sure they all keep their code a secret. That way the person who enters after hours can be identified by the use of the code.
    Two- Cameras, of course. Rather than guessing at who is doing this and firing a possible innocent person, they’d know for certain if they had cameras.

  2. Lynne–you’ve dealt sensitively and comprehensively with a sensitive problem. It’s hard when investigations make employees feel that they aren’t trusted, but it’s also hard to harsh to fire someone [at will sounds like the most expedient reason here] for suspicion of theft and maybe not even being right about it, or trying to conduct your own investigation and gain angering employees, or going to the police. Best wishes to this poster and to all others in this kind of situation.

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