Almost every employer in the country would list ‘theft’ under their disciplinary rules as an example of gross misconduct, entitling them to terminate the employment relationship immediately, without notice, due to the severity of the act. 

The line where petty theft becomes serious crime is often blurred and leaves employers unsure as to how they should tackle the issue. Is the theft of £400 in cash whilst on the way to the bank, the same as taking a box of pens from the stationery cupboard? In these tough economic times, staff simply pocketing post-it-notes can build up to a far larger issue which eats into the company’s profits and cannot be ignored. 

If you ask Asda, the supermarket giant, it seems their answer is ‘yes’. They have, in the past, sacked an employee for allegedly eating a slice of apple taken from a ripped bag that was on its way to the bin. Although the value of the ‘stolen’ item was miniscule in the grand scheme of Asda’s takings, it still constituted theft as the employee did not pay for it. Their zero tolerance policy means that they see no difference between the small and the large, the worthless and the valuable, because in their opinion, theft is theft.

If you instil the mentality that any form of theft, petty or otherwise, will not be tolerated within your workplace you may find that employees are more respectful of the rules as they are clear as to where the line is drawn. 

But what would a tribunal make of a gross misconduct dismissal because an employee took a notepad out of the stationery cupboard at work? Would they look at that case differently to theft of a laptop from the IT department? Whilst the theft of a notepad would constitute gross misconduct, if ‘theft’ was included in the disciplinary rules of a company, tribunals are bound to taking many factors into consideration when asked to determine whether an instant dismissal for theft was fair in the circumstances. One of these factors is whether the response of the employer is considered reasonable.

Is it reasonable for an employer to think that taking a notepad home from the stationery cupboard destroys the employment relationship? It probably wouldn’t be if the employee has worked for the company for a long period and has a previously clear disciplinary record. It might be a different story if the employee is very new and has been helping themselves to bits and pieces. Varying disciplinary sanctions are available to an employer and a suitable one should be found to fit with the severity of the allegation. 

It is important to remember that an employer does not need definite proof that the employee stole something. Whilst it certainly helps as evidence, an employer need only have reasonable belief that the employee committed an act of theft. In this situation, procedure should be followed and a thorough investigation carried out. Many tribunal cases fall – even where the employer does have reasonable belief – because a sufficiently thorough procedure was not carried out. Employees should be reminded of their right to be accompanied to a disciplinary hearing, and should always be given the opportunity to appeal any sanction.

It is important for an employer to show consistency in their regulations towards theft. Disciplining, or even dismissing an employee for theft, but then taking no action in relation to another employee who acts in the same way, would not stand an employer in good stead.
What is your stance on theft at work? Do you have a zero tolerance policy? I’d welcome any of your opinions, please email me at alanprice@peninsula-uk.com

For further information or advice please contact Peninsula’s Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.