Walk of Shame

Question:

Several months ago I got hired into a midlevel position by a large retail chain that’s been plagued by employee theft. I’m the only supervisor who didn’t rise through the ranks and doesn’t have a retail background.

I’ve learned employees I’d never suspect of pilfering merchandise not only steal, but lie with a straight face about how they didn’t take the items we catch them with. In the past, we’ve made it clear we prosecute any employees we suspect, but this hasn’t stopped the amount of theft; nothing has.

Last week, we were told in a supervisor’s meeting that we’re going heighten the pressure on employees we catch stealing. We were given handcuffs and authorization to march anyone we suspect through the store to the manager’s office where they’ll be interrogated. This morning we did that and a customer took a cellphone picture of the employee we apprehended.

What we’re doing bothers me. In the past, we’ve walked the employees into the back office for questioning. None of us have police training. I went to my manager and said the handcuffs bothered me, and was told I was naïve.

This whole idea bothers me.

Answer:

Publicly shaming employees you only suspect can seriously backfire. Never treat an employee as a criminal.

When an employer suspects an employee of misconduct, they need to discreetly investigate the situation without humiliating the employee, or turn the investigation over to the police. An employer can tell the employee that cooperation with the investigation is mandatory and failure to cooperate can result in termination. Despite this, the employee needs to be free to leave of his or her own accord at all times.

An employer that handcuffs the employee, or at any time restrains or confines the employee to the point where they feel “imprisoned,” can be charged with false imprisonment. For this reason, the investigator in most investigation interviews reassures the employee that they will not be kept from leaving.

As an example of what can go wrong when an employer corners an employee, two Target managers confused Jason Kellner, a senior team leader for Target, with another employee they suspected of stealing. They had security personnel lead Kellner away from a discussion with co-workers to the front of the store, where they handed him over to police officers who handcuffed him. Said Kellner in a Business Insider interview, “It was humiliating. All the customers were staring and I had no idea what going on.”

In an even worse situation, when a Target cashier arrived at work, his pockets were emptied and he was handcuffed and paraded through the store in front of customers and co-workers. After being interrogated, the employee was paraded a second time past customers and co-workers to a patrol car and taken to a police station, where he was released and not charged with a crime.

Days later, the cashier jumped to his death from a Courtyard Marriott roof. According to the employee’s mother’s lawsuit, her son told her that it was the worst day of his life and “the walk of shame is a Target policy to purposely cause shame, embarrassment and emotional distress to any Target employee who is suspected of stealing from Target.” Target denied they had a “walk of shame” policy.

Finally, if you call in the police, don’t accuse any individual employee of theft. Instead, tell the police what leads you to suspect the employee’s involvement and let them conduct their own investigation.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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