How to Catch Someone Stealing at Work

Three Methods:Catching Dishonest Employees as a SupervisorTheft-proofing Your BusinessHelping to Stop Theft as an Employee

In 2013, about 78,000 employees in the United States were found to have stolen a total of about about $55 million from their employers. This data is for the field of retail alone.[1] The shocking trend of workplace theft doesn't represent a series of victimless crimes — workplace theft hurts businesses and the communities they serve by robbing businesses of their profits, forcing them to increase the prices consumers pay to recoup the loss. Luckily, there are things that every member of a business — from the owner to the lowest employee — can do to catch dishonest employees and end theft in the workplace.

Method 1
Catching Dishonest Employees as a Supervisor

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    Carefully document each instance of theft. Your biggest friend when it comes to catching thieves in your workforce is information. As soon as you notice that a theft has occurred, make a major effort to gather information that can help you pinpoint when, where, and, if possible, around whom the theft took place.
    • Data you may want to record and/or search your records for can include:
      • The exact time and date of when the cash or merchandise was first noticed missing
      • Starting and final totals for each register or point of sale (for when cash is being stolen)
      • Inventory counts and sales reports (for when goods are being stolen)
      • Names of employees working at the time the theft may have taken place
      • If possible, records of access card swipes, etc.
      • Employee expense reports
      • Records of equipment checkout
    • If you don't have this information, start recording it once you suspect a theft. This alone may be enough to discourage further theft, but if it doesn't, you'll be better prepared to catch thieving employees in the future.
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    Look for inconsistencies in your records. Narrow your search down by checking your records for instances where "the numbers don't add up." In other words, look for spots where money or goods appear to go missing. The better your record-keeping, the more likely you'll be able to find concrete evidence of theft.
    • For example, let's say that, when examining your inventory records, you notice that your records for one day show that you had 20 expensive smartphones in stock at the start of the day and that you had 10 in stock at the end of the day, but you only have records of nine being sold. This is a definite red flag and cause for future investigation.
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    Pay extra attention to special register functions. Employees that steal cash from their register at work often use a set of related tactics to cover their tracks. These basically involve inputting certain functions into the cash register incorrectly, then using the opportunity to pocket some cash. For example, a dishonest employee may use a register's "no sale" function to steal — when a customer hands over cash for her purchase, the employee may input the "no sale" command (which opens the register), pay the customer their change, and pocket a bill from the now-open register. The customer is unlikely to notice, and no sale is recorded.[2]
    • Register functions that you may want to monitor closely include:
      • No sale
      • Refund
      • $0 sale items
      • Reports or print-outs (dishonest employees may pocket money paid while the register system is undergoing a report)
    • O'Dell Restaurant Consulting offers a comprehensive guide to common employee theft tactics, some of which take advantage of these special functions, here. While the focus is restaurant-centered, many of the tactics discussed are applicable to other fields like retail as well.
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    If cash is being stolen, instate a register-counting system. One common way to fight register theft is to use a system where each employee "checks out" a register cash box at the start of the shift and returns it at the end of the shift. When the cashbox is checked out, the money in it is counted, and when it's returned, the money is counted again and compared to a sales report. This system is relatively easy to put in place and, while it won't stop all forms of register theft, it will catch blatant thieves easily.
    • Using a standardized check-in/check-out spreadsheet can make this system much easier for both employees and their supervisors. Rows that you'll probably want to include on your spreadsheet include:[3]
      • Starting cash
      • Cash sales
      • Credit card/check sales
      • Total sales
      • Ending cash
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    When possible, consult video surveillance data. If your business has a CCTV security system, examine the footage for evidence of stealing (especially if the cameras are pointed at locations where theft is likely to occur, like cash registers.) Use the information you've gathered to narrow down the time and place that the theft occurred to as small of range as possible, then watch closely for telltale signs of thievery, including:
    • An employee's hands passing bills from a register into her pockets
    • Bills going from a register to a tip jar
    • Strange habits around a cash register (e.g., some dishonest employees may subtly mark registers to remind themselves how much they've stolen so they can modify their reports accordingly)[4]
    • Merchandise going into coats, purses, backpacks, and so on
    • "Good" merchandise going into the garbage[5]
    • Unauthorized access to safes, cash boxes, etc.
    • After-hours access to the building
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    Hold one-on-one employee interviews for information. While a thieving employee is unlikely to admit to his crime if you confront him directly, honest coworkers may be willing to point you in the right direction. Consider calling your employees to your office for a personal, open discussion about the theft you've been experiencing. You can ask them if they know anything about employees who are stealing or if they're willing to help you work to stop this problematic behavior. You can also take the opportunity to remind your employees about your business's policies regarding theft.
    • When you conduct interviews, make sure that your interviews are done one-on-one behind closed doors. Your employees are most likely to be honest when they don't have to fear running afoul of other employees.
    • You'll also probably want to interview as much of your workforce as you can (every employee, if possible.) This gives your employees plausible deniability — in other words, if their information leads to a firing, it will be harder for the employee who gets fired to figure out who outed him.
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    Consider hiring an outside investigator for an internal audit. It's worth mentioning that owners and supervisors don't necessarily have to fight workplace theft on their own. A huge variety of independent consultants and investigation firms specializing in company security and theft prevention are available for help. While the cost of hiring this sort of outside help may not make it worth it for small incidents of theft, these third-party solutions can be indispensable for larger problems.
    • This sort of help can also be especially useful when the theft is occurring at the bookkeeping level of a business. Dishonest bookkeepers can potentially bilk relatively large amounts of money from a company's payrolls without calling attention to themselves, making an objective outside auditor highly useful.
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    Confront stealing employees only when you have convincing evidence. Don't make accusations of theft or fire employees without strong justification for your actions. Doing this can lower morale in your workforce and give the impression that you are liable to fire your employees on a whim. These problems may be especially bad if it eventually becomes clear that you were wrong about which employees were responsible for the theft. To avoid these issues, wait until you can prove a theft before you act rashly.
    • In addition, it's important to note that if the employee you fire without proof of wrongdoing has a contract that guaranteed some form of job security, this may constitute wrongful termination, which can leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit. However, most employment in the United States is "at will" — that is, employees can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.[6]

Method 2
Theft-proofing Your Business

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    Set up an anonymous "tip" system. If you're trying to root out a few "bad apples" in your workforce, make it easy for your "good apples" to help you. Having an anonymous tip or feedback system in place makes it relatively simple for your employees to report thefts and other inappropriate behavior without feeling unsafe or threatened. In addition, this gives employees a chance to voice their concerns, complaints, and constructive criticism in hopes of improving the workplace.
    • Good ideas for anonymous tip systems include:
      • A feedback box left somewhere (like a break room) where employees won't be noticed dropping their notes in
      • An email account that automatically censors the addresses of employees that send messages to it
      • A third-party anonymous feedback program (i.e., 3sixty, Suggestionox, etc.)[7][8]
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    Introduce exception-reporting software to your point of sale. Employees are much less likely to steal from cash registers with the special function tricks discussed above if they know that these sort of functions are automatically brought to the attention of their employers. Consider using software that reports these functions or asks for a manager's credentials to confirm them to keep your business's points of sale under control.[9]
    • These exception-reporting functions usually come standard on modern point of sale systems. If your business uses an old, out-of-date cash register, consider upgrading to for greater security options.
    • Good modern point of service products include:[10]
      • AmberPOS
      • Vend POS
      • Lightspeed Retail
      • iVend Retail
      • NCR Counterpoint POS and Retail Management
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    If you don't have one, set up a video surveillance system. To a dishonest employee, the idea that you, the supervisor, are constantly watching can be a major incentive to stop stealing. Placing just a few cameras in high-risk locations (like pointed at cash registers, in locations where high-value goods are stored, and so on) can dramatically discourage stealing and can provide invaluable evidence in the event that it does occur.
    • There is even some evidence that fake (or "dummy" security cameras) can deter thefts as well (this, of course, relies on the dishonest employee not knowing that the video camera is a fake.)[11] However, this low-cost option is generally recommended to increase the perceived coverage of an existing security system — not to replace it entirely.[12]
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    Consider other (legal) monitoring options. A business's ability to monitor its employees while they work isn't necessarily limited to video surveillance. A variety of other surveillance tools are also available — depending on how serious you believe your theft problem is, you may or may not want to pursue these optional solutions. Make sure that any monitoring you do does not violate your local laws or the terms of employment you agreed to with your employees. In addition, make sure that you duly notify your employees before any extra surveillance begins.
    • Extra methods of surveillance can include:[13]
      • Instituting internet history checks
      • Automatically scanning communications for suspicious keywords
      • Monitoring text messages, emails, wi-fi connections on personal devices, etc.
      • Hiring security guards
      • Using keycard logging software record access to important areas
    • Note, however, that it's important to be aware of the dangers of too much surveillance. Making your employees feel that they are in a "big brother"-type relationship can have an adverse effect on morale, especially if the surveillance you perform isn't common in your field of business.[14]
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    Try to have a personal relationship with each employee. Most business resources identify three main "reasons" for employee theft: the employee may have some sort of drastic expense outside of work that requires extra money; the employee may feel abused or under-appreciated; and the employee may simply act because the opportunity presents itself. While it's impossible to account for the first problem and the third problem is a matter of tightening your business's record keeping practices and increasing employee surveillance, the second is largely a matter of how your employees feel. Simply put, employees are less likely to steal at work if they like they employer and feel that their work is valuable.
    • Here are some ideas for fostering rewarding relationships with your employees:
      • Frequently talk to your employees informally about their lives, aspirations, and so on.
      • Offer extra rewards and bonuses for outstanding work.
      • Make an effort to talk with each employee individually at least a little.
      • Consider organizing outside-of-work social activities (holiday parties, happy hour outings, etc.)
      • Empathize with your employees' potential complaints and frustrations.
    • Consider this: in a 1976 survey, over half of all respondents who admitted to stealing from their employer claimed to have done so with "no guilt."[15] Don't be the sort of boss that people are glad to steal from — instead, get ahead of the problem by being your employees' friend.
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    Change your business's security measures after firings. Though rare, it is possible for employees to steal from a business after they stop working for it, especially if they're allowed to keep their keys, company credentials, and so on. To prevent this, perform a "reset" of all your security systems after firing employees. Depending on your business, this may include:
    • Changing the building's locks
    • Changing codes to any electronic locks
    • Changing the login information for company email accounts, wi-fi, etc.
    • Reclaiming any keys, key cards, or entry credentials from the fired employee
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    Be open to unconventional solutions. The problem of workplace theft has inspired many businesses to get creative in their efforts. While the solutions below may not be appropriate for every workplace, there is evidence that they can curb theft in certain situations.
    • Use clear trash bags. Employees may hide merchandise in the trash, then stash it in a safe spot when they take the garbage out. Clear trash bags make this harder to accomplish.[16]
    • Require all boxes to be flattened before recycling. This makes it harder to steal merchandise in boxes via the trash method above.[17]
    • Rearrange furniture or remodel to eliminate blind spots. Employees are less likely to steal when there are fewer spots from which they can't be seen.[18]
    • Use random register audits/inspections. Though employees may not like it, they're certainly less likely to steal if there's a chance that their register may be taken and audited at any time."
    • Give occasional "freebies." Giving your employees unwanted merchandise for free is one way to create an anti-stealing incentive. For instance, if you run a restaurant and you find that employees frequently steal food, consider setting up a system where employees can take home any food they want as long as it would otherwise go into the trash.

Method 3
Helping to Stop Theft as an Employee

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    If you notice something suspicious, contact your boss. As an employee, you don't have the same sort of power that your bosses do when it comes to making big, structural changes to your company in an effort to stop workplace theft. However, this doesn't mean you can't be an immense help. If you see, hear, or otherwise observe anything that makes you think theft is taking place, talk to a supervisor immediately. Don't stay silent — keep in mind, according to many workplace's rules, allowing another employee to steal can mean implicating yourself in the crime.
    • At many workplaces, especially ones where there is a major gulf between low-level employees and the management staff or where the employees are unhappy with their jobs, there may be a "culture of silence" surrounding the act of workplace theft — that is, thieving employees expect others to cover for them and may use bullying or shunning to punish employees who speak out. In this case, don't ruin your relationship with your fellow employees by going directly to a boss while you're at work. Instead, contact your boss via email, over the phone, or with one of the anonymous methods below.
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    Use anonymous feedback/complaint systems. Unfortunately, at some workplaces, it may be ill-advised to earn yourself a reputation as the sort of person who reports workplace theft. In this case, try to report the theft anonymously. This way, the management can deal with the theft, but other employees won't be able to trace your actions back to you.
    • Options you may want to consider include:
      • Slipping an anonymous note under your boss's door
      • Writing information on an anonymous feedback card
      • Sending your boss an email from a "throwaway" email account (one that you make and use only once)
      • Meeting your boss outside of work to discuss the problem
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    Gather information carefully, but don't be overzealous. If you see an opportunity to document an act of workplace theft with your own notes, pictures, or video footage, you may do so, but be careful. If the employee committing the theft notices you documenting him, he'll probably stop immediately and won't act out around you again, potentially making it harder for you to prove that he's stolen in the long run. In a worst-case scenario, you may even find yourself labeled a "snitch" and have your relationship with the other employees damaged.
    • Note that, often, it's enough to make a mental note of when and where the theft occurred and who was involved. If your boss considers you to be trustworthy and your information matches discrepancies in your employer's records, your boss may have enough information to act on even without pictures, videos, or other extra evidence.
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    Avoid impulsive accusations. Employees have a duty to talk to their employers if and when they have information relating to workplace theft. However, they should not accuse other employees of theft when there isn't any sort of conclusive evidence to support their claims. In addition, even if there is evidence that an employee has been stealing, they should not attempt to humiliate the thief in front of other employees or customers.
    • Not only can these sorts of unsupported accusations be very embarrassing if they're proven wrong, but they can also have a negative effect on company morale by promoting a feeling that employees are subject to "witch hunts" at a moment's notice.


  • Want to get in-depth with your anti-theft strategies? Consider browsing academic databases for scientific studies and surveys that have been performed on the topic of workplace theft. For instance, Google Scholar has numerous papers and journal articles on this subject.[19]


  • Don't attempt to monitor people you suspect of workplace theft outside of work. Doing this can constitute criminal stalking or harassment.
  • Don't plan a "stakeout" at work without the express permission of your supervisors. This can backfire badly by cluing the thief into the fact that he is being watched or getting you in trouble for taking matters into your own hands. In addition, employees caught in the act may react impulsively or angrily, leading to an awkward, morale-damaging conflict in the workplace.

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