The Case of The Wolf Amongst Sheep
After a string of shop thefts turns personal, a sign company owner unwittingly discovers the culprit and is thrust into a precarious situation.
ON A COLD WINTER morning, Luc, the general manager at ZYX Signs, scurried into the company owner’s office with shocking news. “Michael, someone stole the motor off your boat!” he shouted. “Come take a look!” Luc’s announcement caught Michael completely off guard and felt like a punch to the chest. Michael had been storing his jon boat behind the company building for the winter and had not taken any time to check on its condition. He would not have guessed that anyone would steal the motor. ZYX Signs is in a somewhat remote location, and the motor was heavily chained to the handles of the boat and weighed at least 350 pounds.
In disbelief, and with a sinking feeling of despair, Michael trudged unhappily behind Luc out the back door of the building to confirm the crime. Standing ankle-deep in snow aside the tarp-enshrouded boat, Michael’s mouth dropped. Indeed, his two-year-old Suzuki 50-hp motor was gone.
ABOUT REAL DEAL
Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LAWRIN ROSEN is the president of ARTfx (Bloomfield, CT). Email him at [email protected]
Luc quickly pointed to a trail of footprints in the snow leading to the woods. “Look,” he directed Michael’s gaze with an outstretched arm and index finger. “They came from there.” Michael studied the trail. “And look here,” Luc said, pointing to the back of the boat, “The a-holes sawed off the handles to unchain the motor.”
As the audacity of the theft and the likely permanence of his loss sunk in, Michael’s face began to feel hot despite the frigid northern air. “Those sons-of-b——,” he shouted. “They must have scoped this place out. How the f— would they know this boat was here?”
But as he said it, Michael was angry at himself for not leaving the boat in his own backyard. That’s because, despite having recently installed a locking gate at the foot of their driveway, ZYX Signs had been experiencing regular thefts on business premises.Advertisement
As they returned to the familiar harmony of whizzing air sanders and high-pitched whining of CNC routers in the shop, Luc tried to calm Michael down. The duo had known each other for over 15 years. Luc was one of Michael’s first hires and had developed not only into an exceptional employee and signmaker, but one of Michael’s closest confidantes.
Luc thought Michael should call his insurance company to make a claim. However, Michael was reluctant to do so. Even though the boat motor was less than two years old and had cost several thousand dollars, Michael had a permanent paranoia about escalating insurance rates, figuring they would far outstrip any losses at hand.
Luc then stated, as he often would, “I’m telling you boss … this has to be an inside job.” To which Luc would then add, “Which one of our honest workers is taking us for a couple of dopes?”
Luc’s remark started Michael reflecting upon a string of crimes they’d had in and around the shop. At times the larceny involved something small like a drill or pipe-bender — the types of tools that guys occasionally leave at jobs, or that would be missing, but then pop up in an odd place a week or two later. Other times, the heist was obvious, and the item distinct, like a sheet of ¼-in.-thick black acrylic, or a half-box of gold leaf. Whatever the case, the thievery was pervasive and endemic. And Michael was kicking himself for not being more careful.
Later that same afternoon, Michael was working after hours on a project in the shop — a lamp for his house. It was near dusk, shop workers were punching the time clock, and Luc was tidying up, as he would often do before leaving. On this particular day’s end, Luc was cutting up scrap aluminum behind ZYX’s metal shear, so it would fit in one of the company’s 55-gallon scrap bins. As Michael was about to say goodbye to Luc, the phone rang and Michael got sidetracked on a call.
He came back into the shop 15 minutes later and resumed work on his lamp. After a few minutes, Michael went to one of the storage closets to get a pneumatic pop rivet gun. However, it was not on its usual spot on the shelf. He looked around the various workbenches and tabletops, but could not find it. After checking every nook and cranny, Michael ended up at a place where he had never ventured — the private area under Luc’s bench, which was always cordoned off with a black felt cloth. Michael never felt right about invading anyone’s personal space, but he was desperate for this pop rivet gun.
Reluctantly, Michael pushed back the cloak. To his astonishment and absolute horror sat piles of scrap metal and sundry power tools that had been missing from the shop for weeks and months — including the pop rivet gun.
In an instant, everything came clear to him … right down to his missing jon boat motor. The guy who always warned him that he was being taken for a dope … was taking him for a dope.
Michael’s immediate, knee-jerk inclination was to pour uncatalyzed red epoxy paint over everything under Luc’s bench. However, Michael knew that even if he did that, he still would face a very difficult decision. Luc was not only the shop’s general manager, but also by far ZYX’s top producer and, Michael thought, a longtime friend. What could he do?Advertisement
The Big Questions
- If you were Michael, would you terminate Luc on the spot and call the police?
- Or should Michael merely fire and confront Luc himself, demanding that Luc make restitution to avoid Michael’s involving the authorities?
- What could explain Luc’s continued, possibly self-damaging assertions that the thefts were an “inside job”? Is there some other way Michael can deal with this?
Oklahoma City, OK
Having been a dedicated employee for many years would [definitely] make me hesitant to fire him on the spot and call the police. I would, of course, confront him first thing, and termination would be the final result, but I would want to inquire as to why he would do this. I would offer to allow him to make restitution directly to me for the items he has stolen instead of reporting him, with the understanding that any missed payments would immediately result in a call to the police.
Call Luc into your office first thing in the morning, ask for an explanation, listen carefully and then fire him. There is no reasonable explanation for stealing and Luc was well into it. He is not going to change. Any light punishment would be interpreted as condoning what he had done. He has to go.
This is a hard one.
- Some of the missing items were technically still on the owner’s property; therefore, it was not theft … yet.
- The owner, according to clues given in the article, cannot prove the employee stole the boat motor and other items.
Given the facts listed above, [some] of the missing items [are] not a police matter. The missing boat motor is a police matter, along with anything else that is not recovered. The owner should have a conversation with the employee and inquire about the items the employee was stashing. Then the owner should write the employee up, issuing warnings for each missing item that the employee took. If it’s in the owner’s opinion that the employee stashed these items with the intent of stealing them, that employee should be dismissed. The written warnings need to be in the employee’s file before termination. The boat motor matter should be left at the police’s discretion. So, essentially, yes, I would terminate the employee.
Confront the employee with an HR lawyer (not someone from your firm). The police or insurance company are really not interested in helping you and you are not going to recover anything past what is under the bench. But then listen to the story and make a decision with your heart as well as your mind. You may be able to salvage him or you may not. It may be drug or alcohol addiction, gambling or side jobs.
But, I will guarantee you that when and if you do fire him, the other employees already knew what was happening. Chances are he is not the only one. “The Code” runs very strong in the blue collar working staff and they will not tell on someone they work with. Understand it or not, “The Code” is as strong among your blue-collar guys as the buzz words “business ethics” are to many business owners, but I will assure you, “The Code” is universal with your best and most trusted blue-collar employees.
Colorado Springs, CO
First of all I would get a camera system for my shop, inside and out. I would publish rules about personal use of tools and equipment. Then I would make a poster of rules and display them throughout the facility advising employees that any theft or violation of these rules would result in immediate termination and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. I would issue a copy to all employees and have them sign it. Once that was done I would contact the felonious employee and privately confront him and have him return all materials stolen. If he doesn’t comply, I’d fire his a–! Put the —– in jail! Pretty simple.
North Charleston, SC
First, put cameras to get video evidence. Then ask if he has seen the missing pop rivet gun. Once you have video evidence, confront the thief as to why he is stealing – without telling him you have video evidence. The response he gives will help me decide his fate. Although… the items are still on the premises and not yet stolen at this point, with the exception of the boat motor, which may not be connected. So, gather evidence and ask the appropriate questions before assuming he is actually stealing. Camera up without any employees knowing and gather evidence. If you do get video evidence of stealing, then confront him. One easy way is when you get a video of him placing an item under his table, ask him if he has seen it shortly later. This will, in part, decide his fate. If he says he does not know, put on a show of knowing where the item is and asking, after looking around, if it could be in his hidden area.Advertisement
I would sit down with Luc, put together a plan for him to return everything that had been taken and to reimburse anything that could not be returned in exchange for not reporting Luc to the police. And then fire him in the same conversation.
I would install cameras inside and out and quietly set him up to steal again. Then once caught on camera with proof, I would demand FULL restitution or involve the police!
Simple: call police now.
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