Employee dishonesty


Employee theft is one of the most divisive events that can take place in a veterinary practice. The problem extends well beyond the loss of funds or product that characterize the criminality.

Employee theft is one of the most divisive events that can take place in a veterinary practice. The problem extends well beyond the loss of funds or product that characterize the criminality.

A pall of distrust is cast over the staff and the work environment, which can be detrimental to practice unity. Additionally, the urgency of the problem can cause management and ownership to make abrupt, harsh and sometimes irrevocable decisions that can harm the business financially and legally.

In private veterinary practice and as a consultant, I have witnessed a broad range of employee dishonesty and criminality. Inexperienced practitioners frequently make the erroneous assumption that staff theft and other illegal behavior are limited to the transient minimum-wage workers who sometimes drift into the kennel or reception work.

While this type of worker certainly has a number of reasons to be tempted to commit workplace crime, there is also a high likelihood that problems can arise from the behavior of more seasoned and more highly compensated staff: people who are highly trusted, highly educated or both.

It is vital to remember that theft, fraud, embezzlement, falsification of documents and every other category of workplace crime only occur when a person's level of desperation overcomes his or her recognition of the inherent value of doing right versus doing wrong.

For the small minority of people that one might be considered morally bankrupt (or close to it), it doesn't take much to cross over that line. When a worker comes on board a practice because all other alternatives have been exhausted and work is the only route left, it might not take much to convince him to extract a few bucks from time to time.

But what about the 30-year-old married associate who unbeknownst to you is having a marital crisis and is on the verge of a messy divorce? The bank account is empty, and there are several mouths to feed. Don't doubt that when the requisite level of desperation is reached, desperate measures frequently will be considered. This brings us to the development of a contingency plan to salvage the business, the perpetrator and staff morale.

Staff disintegration

When things are missing or money is coming up short, be prepared for virtually everyone in the practice to become accusatory and defensive, not just the person who is actually guilty. Defensive behavior will be exhibited by many others as they fear the possibility of unjust accusation by the practice owner as well as implication by other members of the staff who have been out to get them. Strange as this behavior might seem, I have witnessed it time and again.

At this point, the most important advice to the practice owner and manager is to take the time to handle the problem with a cool head and exceptionally careful thought. At such a time of tension and apprehension on the part of the staff, words must be chosen very carefully. Admittedly, for many veterinarians and veterinary practice managers, tact and diplomacy are not easy to cultivate, but there might be no other time when they are so very important.

Recognize that information gathering and investigation in the veterinary workplace are really difficult. Veterinary hospitals are usually pretty small work environments, and everyone knows virtually everything that is going on behind the scenes. When evidence of crime occurs, the owner(s) must select someone to help them in the investigation of how and when the problem arose. That selection can be tough. If there is a trusted office manager or partner, they would be the natural person to confide in. Nonetheless, the possible involvement of that person should be seriously considered before talking to them in confidence.

If there is no such person, a long-time employee is a possible candidate for the position of confidante, but selection of such a person presents two problems:

  • First, it is impossible to completely rule out that person as a suspect.

  • Second, as soon as the rest of the staff discovers that the owner and that one employee are working together to investigate the crime, the other employees begin to smell at best favoritism, at worst a witch-hunt.

Naturally, there comes a point where the police must become involved, and this step must be handled with great dexterity. I recommend that the practice owner not simply call the authorities and have them send a uniformed officer to the practice.

Rather, a much more clandestine approach would be taken at first, perhaps with the owner and the selected confidante making a visit to the police to discuss the problem. Ideally, this would be done off-hours.

It has been my experience that the practice owner is on his or her own in investigating such workplace crime. Though I have the greatest respect for the police, the fact is that a few hundred dollars of missing money or a bottle or two of missing ketamine are not particularly high on a crime fighter's priority list unless the problem occurs in a fairly small community. Even if the police are able to give the matter all the attention I would like, it often really takes an insider to ferret out the person or persons involved.

In order to help control an ongoing theft or suspected embezzlement, I often recommend that practice owners secretly contact a competent private investigator or forensic accountant. These people are specially trained to help business owners identify the source and scope of the problem and frequently can pin down the identity of the responsible party. Naturally, the fewer people who know that such a person has been contacted, the better.

Finally, it is of utmost importance that the practice owner and manager say nothing accusatory to any person on the staff. No direct accusations should be made to any worker and certainly nothing should be said or implied to others regarding the honesty or possible involvement of a third party. Occasionally, an owner or manager will be convinced of the guilt of one of the employees that he and she actually will terminate that worker's employment on the basis of suspicion alone.

But be warned. Even if an owner has amazingly persuasive evidence of the guilt of such an employee, I would strongly recommend that any firing be based on other grounds and that the grounds be documented. If a business fires a worker on the basis of accusations of dishonesty, there may well be legal action ahead if that dishonesty does not result in a conviction.

Dr. Allen is a partner in Associates in Veterinary Law PC,a law practice specializing in business and legal counsel for veterinarians and their families. He can be reached at www.veterinary-law.com, or call (607) 648-6113.

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