Let it be known that employee theft, at all levels, is one of the largest preventable costs affecting businesses of all sizes. While most managers have accepted the occasional absconded stapler or ream of paper as simply the cost of doing business, there is a real sense of irony as to why it occurs in the first place; after all, things like staplers and paper aren’t exactly highly sought after commodities for the average employee.

Examining the most common denominators, employees tend to help themselves to office supplies, retail merchandise, or a few bucks from the register because they either feel unfairly compensated or as some misguided attempt at righting some slight perpetuated on them by their supervisor.

Think your staff is completely trustworthy? I’d hate to burst your bubble, but some experts believe employee theft is costing business owners upwards of $3 billion dollars per year – a number that if correct, makes the ratio of retail employees helping themselves to the “five finger discount” seem awfully low (if you’re curious, about 1 in 40 retail employees are busted for stealing).

So how do you combat this problem? Obviously you’re not about to start handing out raises, nor are you going to stop taking warranted disciplinary actions when required.

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First thing’s First: Get to Know Your Employees

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand that employees with whom you’ve got a personal connection with will find it much more difficult to steal from your business. This doesn’t mean that you have to organize and spend copious amounts of money on a corporate retreat, but it does mean that you’ll have to put in a little bit of effort to build rapport with your team.

Show Your Staff That You Care for Their Well-Being

When times are tough, it might be difficult to justify a wage increase to even your most loyal and hardworking team members. Sometimes, as much as you’d like to reward a job well done, there just isn’t enough wiggle room in the budget.

In spite of this, you can still show your team that you care about them and that you acknowledge their hard work. In lieu of raises, help them optimize their work environment; consider things like better lighting or an ergonomic office chair. Granted, they can’t compete with a wage increase, but for some people, working for someone that cares about their health and well being is just as (if not more) important than a few extra bucks come pay day.

Emphasize a Positive, Non-Toxic Environment>

Enacting and maintaining fair and reasonable employment practices and providing your team with clear organizational objectives go a long way to ensuring your work environment remains a positive one. Remember that theft is far more likely to occur if you let the corporate culture become one that condones rule breaking and negativity.

Open the Lines of Communication and Implement an Anonymous Reporting System

Honesty is the best policy, right? Having said that, it’s important to be upfront about the impact that employee theft has on the bottom line (not to mention how the cost of theft impacts things like raises, social activities, and benefits) and what steps you and the rest of the management team take to combat it. Some people may have witnessed something against company policy but fear reporting it would label them a rat; setting up an anonymous reporting system can help to assuage those fears. Remember that anonymous tips are just as credible as a face-to-face method of reporting theft, and it should be treated as such.

Lastly, Make Your Team Part of the Loss Prevention Solution

Even if you do everything right, everything from performing background checks to treating employees fairly and paying them well, you’ll likely encounter employee dishonesty before long. No, this isn’t a reason to say “the heck with it”, but rather an opportunity to make your team part of the solution.

Assign different members of your team to be a part of the process for identifying ways to reduce employee theft. Not only might this give management a different perspective on the issues, your team will feel empowered in helping to eliminate a costly issue. Have them play a role in revising your loss prevention policies and coming up with a list of best practices.

At the end of the day, it’s presumptuous to think that all employee theft will be extinguished using any or all of the methods above. Taking a proactive approach can however do wonders in curbing it.