One of the first theft accusations that Maria Dorian, owner of Welcome Home Cleaning Services in Austin, Texas, dealt with was from a very well-known woman with an enormous house. The client was a local, celebrated political figure and had a live-in nanny and full-time gardeners. Her house was always open with multiple workers in it.
One day, the woman called and accused Maria’s staff of stealing a $25,000 bracelet. Maria’s approach to these situations is always to be as transparent as possible and to immediately begin helping the client get to bottom of the mystery, even if that means encouraging the client to file an official police report.
In this case, because Maria keeps an internal database of client theft reports, she was able to say with confidence that she had not had a single call on the cleaning technicians that had serviced the client’s home. She knew the two long-time employees well. She trusted them and had never had any other clients report suspicious behavior from them. As standard procedure, Maria performs background checks on all of her employees. Both had clean records.
The homeowner fired Maria’s company, but did not press charges until three weeks later. Maria and the two accused cleaning technicians had to go down to the police station. The detective grilled them hard. In the end, the police were unwilling to link any of Maria’s cleaning technicians to the disappearance of the bracelet. “The last I heard of this incident,” Maria says, “was when I talked with the client and told her there was nothing more I could do to try to help her get to the bottom of the disappearance. I had even told the detective to give us polygraph tests. He wasn’t willing to do that. I didn’t understand why at the time, but perhaps they need at least a suspicion to warrant the expense of polygraph testing.”
Problems and Decisions
Each theft case has its own distinct set of circumstances and outcomes. However, every time a theft claim comes up, a feeling of dread and stress accompanies it. “We are always proactive when clients have concerns, but that doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome or even a resolution,” says Maria. “We work hard to hire only honest people. We do background checks and have established policies in our handbook that limit the opportunity for theft. For example, my company requires that two cleaners be present in a room at all times. There is also a strict policy against opening cabinets and drawers. Any reports of suspicious behavior are recorded in a database in order to establish possible patterns. If a theft accusation does occur, we work with the client and authorities to help find the guilty party, if there is one.”
Despite Maria’s best efforts, she worries her company might one day be the victim of negative publicity regarding a theft claim, regardless of whether or not her cleaning technicians were at fault. “Cleaners are often the first to be accused,” she says, “regardless of other possible scenarios.”
Another problem with theft accusations is that the parties involved can often take a long time to come to a resolution. Some companies suspend their cleaning technicians while they attempt to figure out what happened. “I’m divided on this approach and I don’t practice it,” says Maria. “One time, we had a client accuse one of our cleaning technicians of taking $500 worth of makeup. Three months later, after she’d fired my company, she found the missing makeup in a suitcase. She apologized and rehired us. What if I’d suspended or fired the falsely accused technicians? Not only would that have been unfair to the cleaning techs, but as an owner, I could have set myself up for a wrongful termination lawsuit or an unemployment claim. Sometimes, when the missing items are not too expensive, I wonder if I should offer to pay half or even the full amount right away, just to resolve the issue quickly. I haven’t done this yet, because I wonder if it would look like an admission of guilt or possibly even have legal implications. The stakes are high for small businesses like mine, even when we are vigilant and take every precaution for both our clients’ and employees’ safety.”
Carrie Phillippi, APR
Public Relations Director
Maria is doing a great job and is absolutely right to take precautions. The best way to prepare from a public relations standpoint is to have a carefully crafted plan in place for several types of potential crisis scenarios. This includes theft accusation scenarios, even before they happen. Part of being prepared includes having standby statements at the ready.
These are the main points you want to get across to your clients. Standby statements are always truthful, brief and deal only with known facts. They include no speculation or assumptions. A standby statement in this instance could be:
“We take complaints very seriously and give police our full cooperation to investigate the loss of property. This employee has been with us for X years with a stellar record of client service. We stand behind her and believe in all our employees (references, background checks, bonded, etc.).”
“We have a protocol in place for how we handle these situations and maintain complete records.”
“While we understand the homeowner’s distress at the loss of this item, please remember this case was dismissed earlier for lack of evidence.”
If your company has the unfortunate experience of having to deal with an actual theft, your statement should show that you took swift action, fixed the problem and will do your best to replace or make good on the lost item.
If you are prepared, choose your words carefully and stand your ground, Welcome Home Cleaning Services’ image will stay “clean” among consumers.
William H. Urban
Certified Fraud Examiner
From a loss prevention point of view, Maria is responding appropriately by helping her clients resolve these issues. However, words have meaning. If Maria keeps an internal database of client ‘theft’ claims, I would consider changing that system to an internal database of client ‘incident’ reports. A database of “theft” claims could give the impression that theft is a problem for her company, even if it isn’t.
Also, there’s always the possibility of a dishonest client who wants to collect insurance on a high-value item. One way they can do that is to file a theft claim and point the finger at a ‘likely’ suspect, such as a cleaning technician. To mitigate such accusations, owners like Maria might elect to conduct a security ‘audit’ of new clients (or even existing ones). This could be a value- added service. The Security Audit could look for vulnerabilities, such as high-value items lying out in the open. An audit could show how easy it is for “anyone” to gain access to a client’s high-value items or that $25,000 bracelets are better secured in a safe, rather than a sock drawer. Can Maria help both her clients and her company by advising clients to secure their assets ahead of any contractual arrangements? The answer is “yes,” and with very little time or effort. Lastly, not all background checks (BGC) are created equal. A BGC must be performed in real-time and be targeted to the job position. It must consist of the correct legal components. A “down-and-dirty,” inexpensive BGC often provides misleading or outdated data. A ‘real’ BGC might cost more and take more time, but the data is usable and can help keep a company’s reputation “clean and tidy!”
As an employment lawyer, my advice is to start by offering to do a thorough internal investigation of the matter. This involves gathering as many facts as possible and interviewing all involved employees and witnesses separately. Those directly accused should be interviewed last. Report your findings to the homeowner in detail and as soon as possible. If you’ve discovered wrongdoing, outline the prompt remedial actions you have taken. If you did not uncover wrongdoing, report the facts you’ve uncovered. Then, tell the homeowner you certainly understand if they’d like to report the incident to their insurance company or law enforcement and that you will completely cooperate in the investigative process. As for polygraph testing, Maria should be aware of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which states that employees should not be subjected to polygraphs in the routine course of employment with the exception of theft of goods. However, there is some debate in the cleaning industry about the interpretation of this law. Polygraphs are not to be taken lightly and a business owner should confer with their employment lawyer. Maria’s question about the suspension of employees is really more of a labor relations issue than a legal one. Barring a collective bargaining agreement with a union, there are no legal restrictions surrounding the suspension of an employee with or without pay during an investigation.
Finally, I’d like to advise against offering to pay for a missing or stolen item. If, however, the homeowner threatens to damage the reputation of your business and you do decide to pay a homeowner, make sure to get the homeowner to sign a settlement agreement with a statement of release of all claims.
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