Employee theft in the workplace

Feb 8, 2017

If an employee is stealing, the employer has two options regarding the theft. It is advisable to formulate the allegation as ‘being in possession of company property without authorisation’ as it is in certain circumstances difficult to prove that the employee has stolen something with the intention to deprive the employer thereof. For example, if an employee is found in possession of company property without authorisation while he is still on the premises, it may not be possible to have sufficient evidence to prove that the employee deliberately and/or intentionally wanted to deprive the employer of the property (whether it be money, equipment, goods, etc.)
Theft, or being in possession of unauthorised company property in the workplace, happens when an employee takes goods (including money, equipment product, etc.) to which he/she has no lawful right and with the intention to keep the goods to use or sell or for any other purpose. The latter part of the aforementioned is critically important, i.e. proving that the employee intended to keep the goods for personal and/or financial gain.
Essentially, the employee has no intention of returning the goods to the employer as the owner. So what choices do the employer have when an employee steals from it?
There are two choices if an employee steals from the employer:

  1. Follow the disciplinary procedure and dismiss the employee or
  2. Call the police and have the employee arrested, as it is a criminal offence to steal.

It sounds simple, but it is not.
If the employer calls the police and have the employee arrested, he will remain an employee until the employer dismisses him.
It also has to be kept in mind  that if the employee is in jail, the employer cannot notify him to attend a disciplinary enquiry and then hold it in his absence, as the employer knows the employee would not be able to attend. It would be procedurally unfair if the employer dismisses him because he is in jail.
The best thing the employer can do is to hold the disciplinary enquiry first. If the chairperson finds the employee guilty and dismisses him, then contact the police. This will ensure that internal processes are completed and then decide whether to have the employee charged in a criminal case and possibly jailed.
That said; if the employee has stolen potentially harmful or dangerous items such as arms and ammunition, drugs, poisons or a very expensive item, the employer must notify the police at once. Get the employee arrested so he is not on the company premises and then dismiss him later.
Useful tip in dealing with employee theft
Theft must be incorporated into the employer’s disciplinary code as a serious offence where the employer dismisses for a first offence or as part of a group of offences which fall under ‘dishonesty’.
Important: In a small business, stealing by a single employee can have a significant negative impact on both productivity and the bottom line. A thieving employee would not advertise his illegal activities, so managers must be alert to any suspicious signs and be prepared to investigate when necessary.
Knowing what to do when an employee steals from an employer will help ensure that the matter is dealt with effectively.

Disclaimer: LabourMan exclusively provides services to employers.

The content does not constitute legal advice, are not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Kindly contact us on info@labourman.co.za or 021 556 1075 to speak to one of our consultants.


Wallace Albertyn

Wallace Albertyn is a Senior Associate and Legal Advisor at LabourMan Consultants.

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