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To catch a thief, first document suspicions

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in Human Resources

Employee theft is a big problem for some employers. Even so, don’t make the mistake of accusing someone unless you have solid evidence he is the culprit.

Instead, document your suspicions and consider whether to call police or conduct your own investigation. Then, try to catch the thief in the act.

Recent case: John Garcia was one of several employees who worked behind the counter at a post office. Auditors uncovered an $800 discrepancy in the amount of cash received. Then a supervisor recalled that Garcia had once flashed a wad of cash while describing his gambling habits.

The post office put Garcia under video surveillance. The tapes caught him giving customers books of stamps, taking their money and then ringing up a single stamp or just a few. He was confronted and fired.

He fired right back with a national-origin lawsuit, alleging that he had been targeted for surveillance based on his Mexican heritage.

The court tossed out his lawsuit. It said the post office had good reasons to single out Garcia for further investigation, reasons that had nothing to do with his national origins. (Garcia v. U.S. Postal Service, No. 10-2077, 7th Cir., 2011)

Note: If the post office had simply decided that Garcia was the most likely thief—but hadn’t gone to the trouble of documenting why—his lawsuit might have gone further.

Advice: If you don’t have any reason to suspect a particular employee, check up on every employee who had the opportunity to steal.

Never make a scene or accuse someone publicly of stealing. If you are wrong, he or she then has a possible defamation or infliction-of-emotional-distress claim. The better approach: Take your evidence to the police and let them handle the matter.

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