If you suspect an employee stealing from work or misusing company property without permission, it is likely to come as a shock.
Any action you take in response to stealing from work must be fully considered and based on factual evidence to avoid falling foul of legal issues. It is also likely you will have to deal with increasing tension and mistrust among your workforce, making it even more important that you act fairly and lawfully.
Theft in the workplace
Stealing from work can cover theft of tangible items and physical assets such as cash or stock, or intangible assets such as data.
The most obvious theft relates to taking money. Where staff are handling cash on a daily basis, this can be a cause of significant concern in identifying who is responsible, and the measures needed to prevent future abuse and theft. Also consider where discounts are given to friends and family without permission.
Taking company property from the workplace such as stationery, computer equipment or stock for sale is also theft, as is using business facilities and/or materials for non-work purposes and taking property belonging to a colleague without permission.
Intangible assets can also be stolen, such as data relating to customers, the business or commercially sensitive information about a product or design.
Is stealing from work a sackable offence?
Theft in the workplace is usually considered an act of gross misconduct, which is generally considered a lawful ground for summary dismissal, ie dismissal without notice or payment in lieu of notice.
Employers should have in a place a disciplinary procedure which details the process of dealing with allegations of misconduct fairly and lawfully, and the sanctions that can result where the allegations are found to be true, such as terminating the employment contract by dismissal, otherwise an employee may be able to bring a tribunal claim.
Investigating allegations of theft at work
Before disciplinary action is considered, the first step should be to conduct an investigation into the allegations and to gather evidence to make an objective decision.
Basing disciplinary action on hearsay or rumour alone carries risk. As the employer, you have to ensure allegations are investigated and any false or malicious allegations are dealt with appropriately.
It is also important to consider how your actions could impact on staff and staff morale.
Demonstrating too much tolerance when it comes to dealing with theft in the workplace is likely to breed discontent amongst your workforce, particularly if the theft involves another staff member’s belongings who will look to you for a satisfactory resolution to the matter. Staff retention may be problematic if you cannot provide a safe and secure place for staff to keep their belongings whilst working.
This means acting fairly and consistently. If there have been previous incidents, you will need to consider consistency in your approach to avoid complaints, for example, of discrimination.
How you investigate will largely depend on the facts of the matter, such as what has been stolen, who is suspected of stealing and where the theft is believed to have taken place.
What most workplace theft investigations do have in common is discretion. Restrict knowledge of the allegations and the investigation only to those who absolutely need to know. This helps to avoid the alleged perpetrator becoming aware of the issue before time and to prevent rumours and gossip while the matter has not been resolved.
Ensure the investigation is fully documented and contemporaneous notes are kept of relevant discussions with witnesses.
Other questions to ask following the investigation include:
- What is your preferred outcome?
- What are the likely consequences of your preferred course of action playing out?
- What are the consequences of not acting?
- Do you favour handling the matter in-house, or are external organisations such as the police, required?
- Would you be happy handing over control of the matter to an external organisation?
- Will you notify the police?
A hearing should then be held where the alleged perpetrator is given the opportunity to hear and respond to the evidence, and to put forward their case.
Your responses to these questions will help you identify and assess your next steps. Many cases of theft will result in the employee’s instant dismissal, but there may be cases where you decide the matter warrants nothing more than internal disciplinary action and a final written warning. Many workplaces operate a zero-tolerance policy towards theft in the workplace, and this can be an effective preventative measure.
A decision would then be made as to whether disciplinary action is required and whether you will pass the information and evidence to the police.
Can you use CCTV & secret recordings?
Where there is a legitimate business reason, employers are generally permitted to use CCTV, for example to help with an investigation into suspected theft at work, but this measure should be approached with care.
Monitoring of employees, particularly where there is perceived to be excessive, is usually ill-received by the workforce and can exacerbate feelings of mistrust and create an unsettled atmosphere. If you do opt to use CCTV, you should inform your employees and the reasons for doing so. You should also have written policies and procedures in place governing how the footage is to be used, as it is unlawful under the Data Protection Act to use CCTV footage for any reason that has not previously been disclosed to all members of staff. It is also unlawful to secretly film individuals without their knowledge.
Policy & procedure
Effective workplace policies and procedures give employers the framework to handle complex and sensitive issues such as theft at work fairly and lawfully. By stating to all workers your expectations of their behaviour and conduct, and by being clear on how such issues will be handled, you are promoting consistency and certainty in disciplinary issues.
An employee theft policy should help to specify expectations on personnel and the action that can be taken by the employer in the event of theft at work. When drafting such a policy, you should emphasise the importance of a theft-free working environment in creating a positive and trusted working environment, to preserve business information and promote good working practices.
The policy should provide definitions of key terms for clarity and to avoid confusion. For example, depending on the type of organisation, theft may apply to specific assets or conduct, such as forgery, stealing data or using stock without permission.
State what will happen if there is an incident of theft in the workplace. This should include who will take responsibility for the investigation and how it shall be conducted. You can also set out the consequences of stealing from work in the event an employee is found guilty. This may include disciplinary actions or instant dismissal for gross misconduct.
For balance, the policy should also state the organisation’s responsibilities and rights to investigate, such as conducting searches of employee lockers or bags.
Also be clear if it is company policy to notify the police of the theft.
Preventing theft at work
Theft at work can precipitate a review of security and other measures to prevent further issues with stealing. Protective measures will depend on the type of working environment and the assets you need to protect.
For example, you may need to increase the frequency and process for stock and equipment checking and inventory management, or restricting access to limited, authorised personnel.
If intangible assets are a concern, you may need to consider reviewing security and permissions for access to sensitive information, data or records. You may also need to enforce a stringent password protocol for company accounts or systems.
Employees should also be encouraged, and feel safe, to inform of issues they may be aware of, through a confidential reporting procedure.
When dealing with sensitive issues such as theft, you should remember that if not handled appropriately at the outset, it could cause your business considerable problems in the future which can be both costly and time-consuming and damaging to your reputation and employer brand. It is extremely important to ensure you maintain an atmosphere of trust and security within the workplace.
DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers are experienced in advising employers on all aspects of workplace disciplinaries and dismissals. We can support you with advice to ensure a fair and lawful procedure is followed and to minimise the risk of tribunal claims, and can support with developing and drafting an effective and compliant disciplinary policy and have specialist experience in conducting fair disciplinary investigations. For guidance on theft at work, misconduct or any disciplinary issue, contact us.
Employee stealing from work FAQs
What is stealing from work called?
Stealing at work is generally termed theft in the workplace. Employee theft is characterised as “any stealing, use, or misuse of an employer’s assets without permission.” The term “assets” is important because it implies theft involves more than just cash.
What happens if you steal hours at work?
Time theft by an employee occurs when an employee gets paid for work they didn’t do. This can happen by a deliberate act of the employee, fraud (asking someone else to clock them in before they turn up at work), or by doing something else, such as reading a book, whilst they should be working. As with any incidence of theft, it can result in dismissal for gross misconduct, although generally speaking it is the type of theft most likely to end with a written or final written warning.
What should I do if I get caught stealing from work?
There are several things you can do if you have been caught stealing at work. Read through your company handbook or employee theft policy (if there are any) and see how your employer is likely to deal with matters such as theft or misconduct. It should also set out any disciplinary procedures. Secondly, try talking openly to your manager or employer and explain your motives, although you are unlikely to be let off the hook, it may shed some light on why you stole from them and put the theft in context.
Is stealing from work a sackable Offence?
Theft in the workplace is usually considered an act of gross misconduct which carries instant dismissal. That said, an employer must follow the proper procedure otherwise an employee may be able to make a claim to an Employment Tribunal for discrimination or unfair dismissal.
Last updated: 20 December 2022