Companies spend billions of dollars each year combating the billions of dollars lost to theft and error. Much of the money is spent on personnel and devices used to deter, detect and resolve issues that result in loss. Often we overlook the best and most educated source of information - our employees. Sure we put in tip lines and we often provide some loss prevention training and at times we may even speak with someone below management level. But even when creating shrink action plans or resolving audit exceptions we tend to ignore employees who aren’t at least in some form of a supervisory role. Why bother right? I mean what does a part timer know or care about our business? What could they possible add to the conversation? Sure we’d like to know if they know of anyone that’s stealing, but we’re not looking for their advice on our area of expertise.
Which of course begs the question, “how can we get their much needed help if we aren’t even going to ask their opinion?” And unfortunately the most critical information that they hold they aren’t going to share with us. Besides the lack of communication, most employees are operating under the impression that “we already know” what is going on and that we don’t need their help. Certainly, there is a benefit in deterrence to propagating the belief that “we know everything.” It would be bad policy to promote the idea that we are clueless and of course we’re not clueless. We’ve seen most of the shortcuts and tricks before. We know, in general, how dishonest employees will steal from us. That knowledge is different than knowing exactly what “is” going on and “who” is responsible. And to run the best loss prevention program we need that valuable information.
Employees, however, are very unlikely to tell us some things. Here are examples of three things they are highly unlikely to share directly:
1. Who is Stealing: There is a host of reasons why an honest employee won’t make these types of accusations. Some of that is socialization to not be a “tattle-tale” but a lot of it is their assumption that if they know someone is stealing then the company must also know. It’s a valid line of reasoning, after all who ever asks their opinion? And when was the last time they were the first to know something about the company?
2. The Shortcuts: They say that perfection is the enemy of excellence. Whether or not that is true, we know it is impossible to operate with 100% compliance. That is why a “passing” score on most things is set at somewhere south of perfect. Employees take shortcuts to meet the restrictions of payroll and the requirements of good customer service. We, as leaders, expect that to happen and while we don’t promote it, we are reasonable in our expectations. The problem is that shortcuts are easy and over time they become the “way of doing things.” That often leads to errors and mistakes. In a periodic location visit or even an audit we can only see a small snapshot of how that location is operating. Without employee input we aren’t going to know if these shortcuts were the result of a temporary requirement or if they have become permanent practice.
3. The Big Holes: There is no perfect system to prevent all theft. We covered the big things, such as adjust to trends and specific conditions and try to employ a big enough net to catch as much as we can. If our program is effective and efficient we won’t have any “big holes” in our security program. Employees however work within these systems every day. Over time if there is a loop hole it will be found and exploited by a dishonest employee. Long before they dive through that loop hole, the honest employees will probably know it exists. They however are not likely to point out our flawed process. First because they may not feel comfortable criticizing a company official and second they are worried we’ll wonder why they are “looking for loop holes.” Yeah we can be a suspicious group so we won’t judge them on their silent accusation.
So how do we get this important information from the folks who don’t want to share it? Well the first step is to interact with employees below the supervisor level. Everyone wants the opportunity to demonstrate their value to the company. It doesn’t matter if they are part time. Maybe this will be their career or maybe they just want to be helpful. So we need to practice exactly what we ask of them when it comes to customer service - Be attentive and be interactive. An added benefit is we’re leading by example. Beyond that, receiving information is about asking less than direct questions and here are the top three:
Ask the Opinion Questions: Interactions don’t need to be “fact” based. The more “fact” required the more likely a new or part time employee will shy away from the interactions. They don’t want to seem unintelligent and they don’t want to say something that will get their supervisor in trouble. In a hunt for information keep the conversation casual and focus on opinions. In those opinions will be the truth of the factual matter you are examining. For example, “hi what do you think of the POS system?” “It’s fine,” they’ll respond. “Good, anything about it that could be better?” “I wish we had more room for the cash, the tens are always spilling over.” So now you know that they’re not doing cash pulls very often. There are hundreds of variations you can use to elicit opinions that will provide good information.
Ask the Right Questions: The phrasing of a question often determines the response; especially when the questions are asked by a person in a position of authority. Sometimes the best “right” question is one that makes an assumption. For example, “Hi, I know that our damage process is difficult and you guys can’t always follow the procedure, what is the biggest obstacle?” Of course the response will require more follow up questions, but the responses will tell you the shortcuts and how ingrained they’ve become in the operations.
Ask the Open Ended Questions: “Hey do you know who’s stealing in the store?” “No.” Closed ended questions are a nice way to say “dead end.” If we really want information then in addition to opinion questions and the right questions we have to ask open ended ones. One of our favorite questions asked during audits is “tell me about a time you considered calling the tip line and then changed your mind?” Now of course they can say “they never considered,” but you’d be surprised the information we have received. And even if they explain that they never have considered calling, it’s a great opportunity to discuss their level of understanding of the process.
Gaining insight from our employees is a critical component to a proactive loss prevention program. Asking the proper questions requires some thought, creativity and practice. It may not net an ocean of information, but it will have the effect of making employees feel respected and a part of solution. That will ultimately have a positive effect on their behaviors and actions. Doing it right is a small investment of time and effort that is well worth that investment.