Someone on your staff is stealing. It happens. What now?
“Most operators have a general idea about how the thefts are happening, but even if they run a really good restaurant, they don’t know what to do about it,” says security expert Craig Whitfield, author of Guess Who’s Eating Your Profits… (AuthorHouse, 2013). His book provides restaurant and bar managers advice on loss prevention and investigations.
Whitfield advocates a measured response to possible thieves:
1. Keep an open mind. A lot of owners and managers don’t want to admit that their employees—the folks they’ve worked side-by-side with—could be stealing. “It could be your best employee, or the best bartender, but at the end of the day, it isn’t, not really,” Whitfield says.
2. If you do suspect employee theft, take a deep breath and step back. Too often managers confront the accused based on rumors or secondhand information. “That’s a huge mistake,” Whitfield says. Instead, he recommends checking exception reports, closed check reports and other hard numbers that will support any accusation of wrongdoing.
Lots of theft is obvious, but clever thieves can devise under-the-radar techniques for skimming cash. A common ploy, Whitfield says, is for a server to submit their own BOGO or other coupon, ring up the check and pocket the difference. A few transactions like that don’t add up to much, but over weeks or months a pattern could involve thousands of dollars diverted unlawfully.
Taking a step back also allows the accuser to assess the situation calmly. “Sometimes that is a really emotional moment,” Whitfield says. “It’s hard to detach when you discover you have a thief on staff.”
3. Before you confront a suspected thief, decide what your desired outcome is. A confession? Restitution? Figuring this out will determine how the interview proceeds. Whitfield says it’s a mistake to accept anything less than on-the-spot total repayment (in cash or a certified check) of any stolen funds of goods in exchange for a promise not to involve the police. If you accept even a partial payment, the incident becomes a civil matter, he says.
4. Armed with hard proof, sit down and confront the employee. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, consider bringing in a security expert or, if the amount in question is big enough, the police. Whitfield says an amount as low as $500 could trigger a police investigation, but it’s important to have clear documentation of wrongdoing if you decide to take that route.
“I would go back as far as exception reporting will take me,” Whitfield says. Then bring up the discrepancy and ask the employee why his or her numbers are so far off the norm. If someone has a record of many more voids or coupons, ask them why they think that’s the case. Take a look at check records to see when the coupon was applied if it was after the check was closed out, that’s a red flag. “Do you homework,” Whitfield says. “If you have facts, it’s hard for them to refute what you’re saying. You have to be willing to ask the tough questions, be forward and direct, and not ask yes-and-no questions. Ask for a response that provides facts—who, what, when, where, why and how.”
5. Have the employee complete a written statement. Whether you get a confession or not, don’t be discouraged. Have the employee submit something, in their own handwriting, that explains what they did do or gives their explanation for the events in question. Even if they deny any improper behavior, “a bad lie is almost as good as a good confession,” Whitfield explains. If they violated any cash handling policies, having them admit to violating company policy provides a good reason for termination. Have them sign any statement, and sign it yourself as a witness. If you have enough evidence to terminate the staff member, then do so. Keep copies of everything for the local police.