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Employee theft: How to rid your site of this car care epidemic

October 11, 2010
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In the age of nanny cams and undercover investigations, it seems to be easier than ever to catch a thief.

However, no matter what precautions a car-care owner takes, it’s impossible to completely theft-proof your business, especially when dealing with employee thievery.

There are several ways owners and operators can deter and deal with employee theft to keep incidences to a minimum and business running smoothly.

A. The test that tells
Drug testing is an option that more and more businesses are turning to in order to ensure their employment candidates fit a certain responsible profile.

There are many advantages to instituting a drug-free workplace policy; however, owners and operators need to check state regulations concerning drug testing in the workplace.

For instance, according to the US Department of Labor, in Arizona an employer may drug test his employees but must include all officers, supervisors and directors along with general employees.

Many states have guidelines that dictate where drug testing can take place. Some indicate that testing on the job site is not allowed and all testing must be done in an approved laboratory.

Other states, such as Connecticut, limit drug testing to situations in which the employee works in a high risk position or where reasonable suspicion exists.

Generally, if drug testing is conducted, the best bet is to have it done prior to offering an applicant employment. Some employers build it into the pre-employment process requirements.

The safest way to incorporate drug testing into a business is to test every new employee. Having a policy that is all inclusive will safeguard the employer against discrimination and defamation lawsuits.

Check out your state’s drug testing guidelines at asp/programs/drugs/said/StateLaws.asp.

B. Check the past to see the future
One of the most important steps in the hiring process is performing either a background check, reference check or both.

This is an imperative step for an owner of any business, but especially for wash owners with detailing services and detail shop owners, whose employees are often working in customers’ vehicles, many times unattended.

Jeff Gold, the owner of Buckman’s Car Wash & Detail Shops, Rochester, NY, checks employee references at all seven of his locations.

Gold asks for two to three references from each applicant and is adamant that all references be contacted. He explained that he encourages good workers to recruit their friends, however, that doesn’t mean that the new employees won’t be asked for several references.

When checking references, be sure to ask:

  • How long did the individual work at the site?
  • What were the person’s daily responsibilities?
  • Were there disciplinary incidences of any kind?
  • Did the employee leave of free will or was he or she fired?
  • Would they hire the applicant again?

Some previous employers may not feel comfortable answering all of these questions; however, this may be a good indicator of how the employment relationship ended.

According to Scott Perkin, owner of Scotty’s Shine Shop, London, Ontario, Canada, if previous employers are hesitant to answer questions about a job applicant that immediately sends up a red flag in his book.

Perkin knows that when he is asked to give a reference for an employee who he would not hire again, he tends to answer generically, describing the prior employee’s performance as only either positive or negative.

According to Perkin, if a previous employer doesn’t want to be held accountable for saying something negative, they will tend to answer questions broadly or not at all, and that is a response that needs to be taken seriously.

C. Mystery shopping
The true test of a person’s integrity is said to be what they do when they think no one is watching. So the true test of an employee’s honesty is what they do when they think the boss isn’t watching.

A good way to find out how honest employees are is to have someone watching the employees when the boss isn’t: a secret shopper.

Laura Miller is the managing partner of Satisfaction Services, based in a suburb of Washington, DC, a company that provides customer service evaluation help, including secret shopping.

Miller said that car-care facility owners use the company’s services to make sure that all employees are working for the good of the business rather than just to benefit themselves.

Mystery shoppers check to make sure employees:

  • Are not overcharging for services;
  • Provide receipts for every transaction; and
  • Do not remove anything from the vehicle.

Customarily, mystery shoppers are used as a tool to measure customer service; however, they can also be used to spot employee theft problems that an owner or manager may not be close enough to notice.

D. Camera clues
In early February, 7News, of Denver did an undercover investigation of 15 carwashes in the area. Equipped with several hidden cameras they videotaped employees at six of the 15 carwashes stealing from a customer’s vehicle.

Employee theft does not always have to mean an employee stealing from the wash; it can also mean stealing from customers.

Marion Larson, the owner of The Broadway Car Wash, Englewood, CO, was shocked when she discovered that three of her employees were caught red-handed on tape by the station.

Larson explained that she had no other recourse but to fire the guilty employees. She feared that the negative publicity would affect business, but found that after explaining her reaction and subsequent policy changes through the media, customer response has been favorable.

By showing that she took appropriate action against the guilty parties and by being honest and upfront about the situation, Larson was able to halt the negative effects that could have re-sulted from the incident.

The hidden cameras used in the investigation were placed in vehicles, but owners can use the same technology to catch thievery in other areas of the site.

Perkin recently invested about $2,500 in a surveillance system and advises all car-care owners to do the same.

He admits to being hesitant at first because he didn’t want his shop to have a Big Brother-type environment. He soon realized that if employees weren’t doing anything wrong than they wouldn’t need to worry; they would have nothing to hide.

The most common areas to place surveillance cameras are:

  • At the cash register or area of sale;
  • In the employee break room;
  • In the shop area or convenience store; and
  • In the parking lot.

E. Zero tolerance
Taking a proactive approach when dealing with employee theft is important to help establish a pre-determined response if an incident does occur.

Employees should know prior to employment that the facility has a zero tolerance policy. Making it known that any theft will be reported to the authorities instills a sense of gravity concerning the situation.

Many car-care owners who have a zero tolerance policy outline it in their employee handbook.

Gold recommends being very vigilant concerning the policy. By terminating a guilty employee other employees realize that acute action will be taken in every circumstance.

Perkin has his employees sign a contract, prior to being hired, indicating that they understand the policy. He noted that the contract can be valuable if problems occur because it will be a viable document in any legal action taken resulting from the termination of an employee.

A necessary evil
Being wary and sometimes even suspicious about employee’s activities is something no employer enjoys; however, in this day and age it seems to be a necessary evil.

With new technology and resources available today, thankfully it is much easier for employers to monitor and deter theft. However, it is up to each owner to utilize the means available to control employee theft issues and protect their business.