What to do if you suspect workplace thievery

It can be as small as a handful of office supplies (a few Hi-Liter pens, a few pencils and a ream of paper) that an employee snatches for his or her middle schooler. Or it can be a sophisticated, years-long embezzlement scheme involving forged invoices, multiple bank accounts and phony customers.

Fraud prevention experts believe in the 10-10-80 rule: 10% of employees never steal, 10% do, the rest will go either way depending on the circumstances.

It’s often up to HR to play workplace cop.

How you react to suspected theft can either solve a straightforward workplace problem or create a massive legal nightmare. Accusing, harassing or interrogating a suspected thief is a flashpoint for a lawsuit.

Many in the security field say the best way to handle an investigation of large-scale theft is to turn it over to an outside expert who knows how to handle an employee without getting sued—or, if the level of criminality is high enough, the police.

If you’re dealing with office supply pilferage, you might better address the issue with a companywide meeting. This puts the guilty party on notice without causing a confrontational scene.

Advice: Spare everyone the drama of a full-blown interrogation. If the problem is that serious, you probably should have called the police.

Consider this common scenario: A cashier has been short in his register drawer on several consecutive shifts. When he arrives at work, you take him by the arm, steer him into your office, lock the door and tell him he isn’t leaving until you get some answers. He offers a signed confession.

Not only is the confession likely inadmissible in court, but the cashier could sue you for false imprisonment, assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress. The cost in legal fees alone would undoubtedly be more than what the employee stole.