When is theft a sacking offence?

Back in the day I worked in an HR department of a well-known retail group.  I was young, enthusiastic and it was in this environment that I first learnt how to give advice on Employee Relations.  Working from HQ, I was the “Employee Relations Advice Line” for 2 days week.  Store managers would call with their employee problems and I would provide sage advice on how to resolve them.

I had a range of interesting cases:

  • An employee was numerically dyslexic (Dyscalculia).  She had been in charge of the shoe section for the last four months and in that time they had thrown away A LOT of odd pairs.
  • A cook in one of the restaurants (the one nearest my house at the time) turned up for work with an acute case on conjunctivitis
  • An employee who had brought the firm into disrepute by flashing her bra to the builders on the building site next door whilst she was in the staff room having her tea break.

However, the most common issue was theft.  Employees would be “sacked” for stealing a penny.  Whilst that might be extreme, the organisation took any theft seriously.  If every employee stole a penny every day, the company would lose £22k per day.  Or over £8 million a year.

The other day I was reminded of my experiences working in retail when I was discussing the issue of employee theft with a couple of NHS HR Managers.  The way we manage theft in the NHS is very different.  I think it’s because the type of cases we see, for example:

– a play specialist invented  the day trips and activities she had done with her patient groups and claimed for the expenses incurred.  This went on for two years before management discovered there was an issue.

– another care worker received a number of very large, very generous money gifts (in the form of a cheque) from a vulnerable patient who frequented the clinic on a regular basis.

– an employee who was stealing from her colleagues – £10 from a purse, a stereo, sandwiches from the fridge (can you believe it?)

– a nurse who stole non-controlled drugs to fuel a drug-habit.  (see footnote for explanation of non-controlled drugs)

In all these cases, there is no simple scenario of “one time, x took 2p from the till and hasn’t returned it yet”.  The cases are complex, and often only came to light some time after the initial event occurred.  Frequently initial investigations show that there is limited robust, concrete evidence and much rests on connecting a series of events.

Such cases often turn out to be lengthy and detailed investigations and if done well, reach the appropriate conclusion.  They are handled in a completely different way to how I would have advised a manager working in a shop.  But I think that each case has to be handled according to an organisation’s culture.

On the day of the discussion with my two HRMs, we were debating whether a cleaner who had “stolen” a bottle of industrial size bleach should be sacked for gross misconduct.  She admitted the misconduct as soon as it was discovered, had mitigation and was willing to pay the Trust back equivalent to the amount of bleach used.

Two of us felt it wouldn’t be a “sacking” offence, and the other believed that “Theft is theft”.

What do you think?


Foot note:  uncontrolled drugs are those which are not subject to “control” procedures (eg in locked cabinets, audited etc) by the nursing staff.  These include drugs that you can buy over the counter – eg Paracetamol, or slightly stronger – eg Codeine Phosphate.    


2 comments on “When is theft a sacking offence?

  1. Well its dodging the question a bit, but there is no doubt at all that dismissal in those circumstances would be fair – mitigation or not.

    Being prepared to pay for a thing you’ve stolen doesn’t really make a difference. If it doesn’t belong to you you have to give it back or pay for any loss.

    My experience is that most employers would regard dismissal for this offence as a given and it would take exceptional circumstances to persuade them to settle on a final written warning instead. If you don’t dismiss, what message are you sending about the importance of honesty?

  2. Lynsey says:

    I’m in the view that theft is theft and despite mitigation, however heartfelt, the action itself brings in to question the trust you place in a person. I’ve worked in retail too and it is more “cut throat” with a no nonsense approach to theft. In my current role in a large finance co’ it’s a little more complex- the “theft” tends to be manipulation of incentive schemes rather than a bottle of bleach, but each case needs thorough and detailed investigations to ensure FSA regulations and there is always the “operational” side that comes up – i.e “I did it to get sales for my branch/area” which results in the employee being let off with a warning. Although we have our fair share of cleaners claiming for hours they haven’t worked and admit to this during investigations, thinking that once they’ve admitted they’ll be let off the hook. Unfortunatly, the Co stance is “theft is theft”, even it is of hours.

    Interesting blog Karen.
    Regards Lynsey (Pink Wizard UK)

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