Theft in the lab

Q After reviewing
my laboratory’s annual budget and yearly supply inventory, my
suspicion is that we are having a problem with theft — particularly
of paper and other items used for printing. My informal
investigating revealed that one staffer helps himself to office
materials. Another took home several sleeves of Petri dishes to use
for her child’s science project; she then brought back the dishes,
incubated them, and asked staff to help identify organisms that
grew. None of these incidents is individually significant, but they
add up. Am I liable as lab director for supplies that go missing?

A Employee theft is an
enormous problem for American businesses; some experts place the annual tab
at a billion dollars a year. Others believe employee theft is a significant
factor in business bankruptcies. Even in the clinical lab, losses of
supplies and tools as well as misuse of company staff can run into
substantial expense, making cash-strapped times especially difficult. As
director, your responsibility is to properly oversee your teams and to
prudently administer your budget, including putting mechanisms in place and
cultivating attitudes that discourage pilfering and theft. Additionally, if
you are aware of instances of theft, your responsibility is to follow up in
an appropriate way.

Although a common distinction exists between “theft”
(large quantities or items of great value), and “pilfering” (items of low
value), the effect on the employees is the same. Either one directly costs
the institution money; and, indirectly, either one erodes the ethical basis
of the workplace. If a manager is aware of theft and does nothing to stop
it, employees assume that conduct rules are either lax or non-existent. If
it is permissible for the pathologist to use lab resources for a school
project, why should not a bench technologist “borrow” a lab laptop for the
weekend? Your experience shows that product loss extends from top management
on down. Involved individuals often consider the use of company resources a
“perk,” though one they probably could not define.

Keep a distribution log to establish consumption variances;
if you notice or receive a report of unusual use, approach the offender
and remind him of policy.

Theoretically, any unauthorized use of company
resources amounts to theft — and that includes pilfering toilet paper, using
the lab Internet connection for personal use, and conducting personal
business on company time. The reality of life dictates that such a
hard-and-fast rule is impractical to enforce. Your challenge is to put
definitive, practical, and enforceable limits on personal use of those

Personal life and business overlap at times. For
example, a mother who forgot a permission slip may need to fax a note to her
child’s school using the lab’s equipment and paper. A zero-tolerance rule
personal use of company resources is to be avoided or reimbursed
might later be regretted. Under that sort of rule, the mom faxing the
permission slip would be charged a preset amount for the use of the fax
machine and paper, while the employee who takes office supplies is also
expected to pay for a paper clip. Zero-tolerance policies can limit the
economic loss but often result in poor employee morale. Employees who do
abuse the workplace tend to resent what they see as a petty attempt
to recoup a truly miniscule cost.

The best solution is to develop perspective. The
occasional pen is not an issue, but a box of pens is. The employee
using a lab envelope to mail a critical bill once a year is not a problem —
unlike the one who uses dozens of office envelopes to send out his
Christmas letters. Establish control over items most likely to be pilfered:
copy paper, pens, pencils, and stationery. Track overall use throughout the
lab, and avoid leaving large quantities unsecured. Keep a distribution log
to establish consumption variances; if you notice or receive a report of
unusual use, approach the offender and remind him of the policy.

Other policies may concern high-value items that can
be used “outside” (e.g., laptops, calculators, glucometers), which should
leave the premises without permission and clear
. Use of institutional facilities and personnel for
uncompensated work (i.e., science projects) can probably be accommodated
occasionally, but a procedure should be in place for notifying the
institution of the project, its cost to the institution, and a way to
formalize permission and, if necessary, reimbursement.

Proving a case of workplace theft can be
difficult without good inventory control — until and unless stolen
materials are actually found in the possession of the accused — but it
is important to be receptive to reports of theft and to follow up
thoroughly. Remember that the thief may not be among your own lab staff:
After-hours lab access by others in the hospital can make your supplies
and equipment inviting targets.

Employees will often confess when confronted with
an accusation of theft. If theft can be proved, handle the situation
through regular disciplinary channels just as you would any other policy
breach. Your institutional attorney can advise about situations in which
criminal action may also be warranted.

Barbara Harty-Golder is a
pathologist-attorney consultant in Chattanooga, TN. She maintains a law
practice with a special interest in medical law. She writes and lectures
extensively on healthcare law, risk management, and human resource

“Liability and the Lab” is intended to provide risk management and human
resource management education; it is not intended to provide specific
legal advice. If you require legal advice, the services of an attorney
should be sought. Dr. Harty-Golder welcomes your questions, which can be
sent to her at
[email protected]. Unless
otherwise noted as “confidential” by readers, all queries will be
considered for publication without further notice to them. Names,
institution, city, and state will be removed before publication.

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