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I know this is a bit of a strange question. I am currently working in a retail store. There has been a lot of shop lifting and sometimes I blatantly see customers doing it. The first time it happened a customer was taking cans out of the storage area and putting them in his pants while we were clearly looking at each other. He didn't even care that I was watching him do it. I told him he had to leave and he did.

Management does not seem to care. They tell me not to interfere or jeopardize my safety. While I understand and agree with this point, it seems they have taken it to the extreme. It is as if they are saying people are allowed to steal from the store.

We have surveillance cameras and I asked if they could print out of photo of the shoplifter so other people know not to let him in, but this never happens. We can't possibly have insurance cover the loss because we don't even care to keep track of what was stolen. I guess this website has people from all around the world, so maybe worth mentioning where this is has very low violent crime and very trustworthy police (at least that's what visitors from South America have told me).

Questions:

  1. Is it not implied in every job that the workers will at least to some extent protect the company property?
  2. How should I confirm I should literally do nothing? Should I still tell management just so they can't later ask why didn't I say anything? It seems like management doesn't even want to hear about it. Would they care if it's an employee stealing from the company?
  3. Is this ethical to not care at all?

Add: for some reason a lot of answers assume I would be neglecting my other duties if I were to be vigilante about theft. I do not intend things like to search customers before they leave the store of course, I meant obvious things (as already stated in the example) like putting several cans down his pants.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    May 17 at 9:59

10 Answers 10

168

As a former retail manager, beyond the risk/safety/insurance reasons already given, there's a big one that's important: distraction.

I had several workers who cared a lot about loss prevention, to the degree you seem to. It's great that they cared about the company, and I always encouraged their feelings - so long as they stayed as feelings.

However, when they took action based on those feelings, it inevitably ended up making their performance worse. If you're a stocker, and you're able to stock 1500 cans an hour at $15/hour, then it costs me a penny for every can you stock. I've presumably budgeted for that. If you're worried about shoplifters, though, you're going to stock less - maybe 1200 cans an hour. That's 300 more cans - $3 - that aren't stocked in your hour, every hour.

That not only literally costs another $3 (plus employment taxes and benefits etc.) to replace, but it also most likely affects all sorts of other things - retail stores usually have hours budgets, and so now I can't spend quite as much on customer service as I'd like, as I have to increase the stocking budget.

The same thing applies to the customer service side, but even more so. A customer service associate who is worried about loss prevention isn't helping customers - so they're not driving increased sales, they're not ringing up as many people as quickly, they're giving worse service to customers as they are distracted.


A side note: working in retail as an intelligent, thoughtful person can be very difficult, because it's so important that you stay in your lane. Retail is really built for that - they want order-takers for the most part who can do what they're asked. If you're an intelligent, thoughtful person, you're going to want to improve everything, do everything differently, do more than your job. That's great! But, it means you're going to have a hard time fitting the retail mold. Instead, do your job the best you can do, with what you're asked and what you're given - and if you're planning to stay in retail, that will get you noticed and promoted, and then you can afford the bigger picture view you have now. That's largely what I did, and it worked really well for years.

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    +1. An answer chock full of interesting takes
    – thehole
    May 15 at 3:59
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    Excellent insights imo
    – Kilisi
    May 15 at 13:06
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    It's a very interesting answer, in that it essentially describes that the trade-off for higher rates of theft, is the saving gained in suppressing the effort and risk that would otherwise go into workers performing informal civic duties and law enforcement. I've often thought myself that shoplifting nowadays is an informal kind of social security and (particularly where shoplifting is done by professional thieves) a financial subsidy for the local poor population who can buy various goods from criminals at well below retail prices - almost a form of differential pricing.
    – Steve
    May 16 at 13:17
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    @Steve You might enjoy The Coup's song I Love Boosters
    – bdsl
    May 16 at 15:06
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    Of course, none of this means that shoplifting is ok, or that management thinks it's ok. Sometimes it comes down to a "this is why we can't have nice things" matter -- I have seen several retail stores not too far from where I live close their doors because losses from theft made them unprofitable. And for that reason, if one is working retail at a store with a high rate of such losses, then it might be in one's best interest to seek a transfer to a different store. That might make your working life less frustrating, too. May 16 at 16:46
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Fact: If a thief hits you on the head with a can of beans, that can be 100,000 times more expensive than the thief putting the can of beans in his trousers and walking away.

Fact: If you think someone is stealing a can of beans but you're wrong, then whatever you do to stop them can be very expensive as well.

Yes, you should protect company property to some extent. Your management decided to what extent. They might be right or wrong, but you shouldn't do anything they tell you not to do. And there are weak-willed and stupid people in management in many stores, but that's life.

If you are in a retail store belonging to a chain, then it's possible that the management of your store has different rules than the other store, but not likely. In that case, your store might have twice the theft rate of other stores, and at some point management above yours would want to know why that is.

Now as a customer, I might go to your management and ask them why they think I should pay for the goods when they let other people just walk away with stolen goods, because in the end the customers are paying for this.

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    The customers would also be paying for extra security. May 14 at 8:09
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    I agree with most of this answer, except the sentence that implies people tolerating a certain amount of theft are "weak willed and stupid people". For many businesses that mostly sell low value items it is far, far more cost effective to simply tolerate a certain amount of shop lifting than to do anything to prevent it. In addition to your first two facts, which are true, any loss prevention efforts can also annoy the legitimate customers. And for grocers there can be negative publicity for prosecuting people for almost literally stealing loaves of bread. Tolerating it can be good business. May 14 at 20:04
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    Above a certain point, loss can annoy the legitimate customers more than loss prevention would. If I witness people openly shoplifting in front of uncaring staff, I'm going to feel unsafe and probably take my business elsewhere. May 14 at 22:45
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    The flip side of that is that if I witness store employees using significant amounts of physical force to apprehend small-scale shoplifters (and I have), I might also feel unsafe and possibly take my business elsewhere. It may be a negative shopping experience to see a fellow shopper stuffing a can down their pants; but it's far more negative to wonder if you'll be assaulted if an employee suspects you of theft. May 15 at 7:56
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    @TimothyAWiseman "any loss prevention efforts can also annoy the legitimate customers" - Yeah, I've stopped using a store that wanted customers to show their bags when leaving. They have the right to ask, I have the right to refuse, and the right to pick a store where they don't treat customers as suspects.
    – pipe
    May 15 at 12:36
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Retail stores, when the need is appropriate, hire loss prevention specialists to deal with what you're describing. They have completely different training than the other retail workers. But on top of that, the company pays more on their insurance to be able to have these kinds of employees in the store, because they deal with the shoppers in a completely different way and there's inherent risk of injury involved with approaching shoplifters.

You are not working a loss prevention role. Your bosses have told you, in not so many words, to stay in your lane. If you get hurt while trying to prevent someone from stealing a $5 item, it can cost the company $5,000, $50,000, or $500,000 by the time the medical bills and attorneys are finished coming in. The ethics that you should be concerned with are doing as you've been instructed in order to not put yourself in harm's way, creating a larger financial loss.

If you want to be a hero, join the fire department, police department, or get a loss prevention role. But otherwise, you should probably stand down before you get fired for insubordination.

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    I agree completely. Shoplifters could become violent or at least make a tantrum and become a time loss. One has to wait until real cops are arrived and fill paperwork. This means you aren't doing your work. Besides I think if the value of the lost items is under a certain threshold, isn't a big problem and i calculated on the costs. Like when unsold fresh food has to be thrown away because is soiled or the like. May 14 at 14:52
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    In addition the thieves have a lot more experience of this than you do. If they don't assault you it's likely they will start screaming that you are killing them as soon as you touch them. How do you react to that? The store is also painfully aware of cases where the retailer wasn't able to prove theft and the thief (sorry, innocent person) then sues for the terrible reputational damage. Professional shop lifters (and there are people who do this full time) are delighted to be dealt with improperly. Law suits pay well.
    – Eric Nolan
    May 14 at 16:56
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    Ditto what @EricNolan commented... Someone who will look you in the eye daring you to stop them while they’re stealing something is dangerous in one way or another that you aren’t trained to deal with. It’s property crime and not worth putting yourself in physical or legal jeopardy for, especially when you know you will not have the company’s support if you interfere.
    – ColleenV
    May 14 at 17:50
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    Also loss prevention really isn't about protecting the store from customers, it's there to protect the store from employees (typically). Customer theft is fairly predictable year to year and can be accounted for. Unless organized crime is targeting the store, by far the bigger worry is an employee letting pallets go at a time, not a customer yanking some cans. But to be fair to the OP, if a store gets known for being unusually easy to steal from compared to other stores in the area it can become a problem -- which is why stores usually give the appearance of trying to catch shoplifters.
    – eps
    May 15 at 0:01
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Four years ago a college classmate of mine worked at a gas station near a refugee center. It was "normal" that the inhabitants came by daily to steal small stuff. That classmate of mine was new there and he went after them to tell them to put it back. He ended up with a broken arm and a concussion because they jumped him with a group of 5.

So Reason 1 to condone the stealing: Those few euros/dollars aren't worth more than your life. Sadly it has become so that there are people in the world willing to kill for 5 bucks. And no boss wants the life of an employee on their conscience.

Reason 2 is: The medical bill from getting wounded is much more than the few items they steal now and then.

His boss also told him that it's not worth the effort seeing the costs of doing something about it outweigh the price of the products, why? They at first called the cops, but most of the times they weren't able to do anything. On the rare occasions that they did manage to find the perpetrators, the other refugee center inhabitants became angry and vandalized the store (throwing rocks through the windows or barging in with masks and wrecking the place).

So Reason 3: Retaliation. People who steal are often also people who are friends with less than reputable people who would be willing to do vengeance actions. Something in the name of vengeance.

And finally Reason 4: Insurance fees. In my country, the more times you ask for an insurance payout you have to pay higher monthly fees and also if things like theft are mentioned it will also increase the fees. Intervening in a theft might lead to calling the cops, then there comes an official report and the insurance fees go up...which might cost more than the actual products stolen.

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    Thanks for this. But I think where I live doesn't have a high violent crime rate compared to what you describe. May 14 at 8:25
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    @casablancaeggplant i live in one of the lowest crime rate area's of my country (A western European country) but even in paradise there are also some criminal elements
    – A.bakker
    May 14 at 8:32
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    @casablacancaeggplant where is this utopia and can I move there?
    – Studoku
    May 14 at 10:45
  • @Studoku Low crime level was compared to South America. So, probably could still be one of the quite dangerous areas of Europe. May 14 at 11:41
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    @casablancaeggplant , you should stop going "back and fore". Everyone has told you the same thing. This is not your concern - do exactly what management says.
    – Fattie
    May 14 at 11:59
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Is it not implied in every job that the workers will at least to some extent protect the company property?

No, it's the exact opposite. Unless it's a part of your job contract, you're expected not to undertake any measures on your own. You don't have proper physical and legal training, and your reckless action could cost the company more than the whole shopliftings the whole year long - a wounded thief could sue them, you could face criminal charges etc.

How should I confirm I should literally do nothing?

You shouldn't. You've done something: informed them. They've told you to keep away from it. If you'll ask for written confirm for every word you're told, you'll only annoy people.

Is this ethical to not care at all?

It's against working ethics to cause damage to your employer by neglecting your duties. Protecting your shop against criminals is not your duty. You do care, but as already said, by acting you could potentially cause a lot of damage.

Now, why they "don't care"?

Maybe the losses from the shoplifting cost less then hiring security personal? With the surveillance cameras, they can always report big cases to the police. Police usually don't care about small cases, but the damage is limited.

Or maybe the management is acting against the owner interest and they want to ruin the shop, because they know someone, they would like to buy it cheaply? It also happens, in that case, if you try to mix up, you could end being accused of stealing yourself?

Anyway, it's the best way to to as told, keep away, as long as you don't have a reasonable suspition, they make something criminal, you're on the safe side.

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IMHO, it is not your decision to make policy at the store - corporate does that.

Your job as a person, human being is to care for your safety. Do NOT confront a thief as there is a big chance you can be assaulted - people that steal in the supermarkets in general have a very little to lose.

And as an employee, your job is to uphold corporate policies and internal rules.

As a side note - even if you don't see things happening at your level, it doesn't mean nothing is done.

For example - camera footage of thief and stolen merchandise could be processed by a back-office department to file weekly reports to corporate and police

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When I worked retail 15 years ago it was company policy and we were trained specifically to not go after shoplifters. This was a large DIY store in the UK and the biggest concern was that the shoplifter would be lifting stuff like chisels and hammers and Stanley Knifes which they could use to harm or even kill you.

I once did help tackle a shoplifter and guess what I had to take time (unpaid) out of my own schedule to show up at a sheriff court. Shoplifter didn't turn up but I wasted half a day sitting about in a court without being paid anything.

Your questions:

Is it not implied in every job that the workers will at least to some extent protect the company property?

No it is not that would be specifically called out in a contract.

How should I confirm I should literally do nothing? Should I still tell management just so they can't later ask why didn't I say anything? It seems like management doesn't even want to hear about it. Would they care if it's an employee stealing from the company?

I would ask the store manager i.e. whomever is the highest ranking manager of the store if you can if not then whomever is highest ranking that you can see. I think they will confirmed everything everyone has said here.

Is this ethical to not care at all?

Shoplifting is a morally grey area there is too much nuance to give a clear cut yes or no. To answer as best I can sometimes it's ethical to let someone shoplift and would be unethical to stop them. It's pretty rare that is ethical to stop them but it can happen. Examples of both:

The most shoplifted items are things like baby products and food. The people who are doing this are on the bottom of the social ladder often in abject poverty. They are faced with the choice of stealing or going hungry. The ethical choice here is whether to chase them down to protect some small part of a large corporations profits. This is fairly clear cut that the most ethical thing is to let them take the stuff. I've seen the argument that stealing is more unethical than letting themselves starve and they should choose to starve but I personally would rather a corporation loses a tiny bit of profit over poor people starving and I think most people would share that opinion.

Another example though is someone who is doing the shoplifting as a cry for help. Someone maybe with a mental health disorder. These people need help and so leaving them to shoplift to their hearts content is definitely the wrong thing to do. Most likely they are doing it to draw attention to themselves to family members and they will continue to do it until that happens. Their goal is to get in trouble such that they are noticed and leaving them alone doesn't make the situation any better. This is a rare example most people who shoplift do it because they are poor nothing more nothing less.

Regardless of this though it's definitely not up to you to make this moral decision as you are working for a company and you should follow the company policy.

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This is not your problem. If management wants to allow people to steal from the store, that's management's business. In the end, management has to deal with the finances of the shop, and if they believe they can balance the budget and pay your salary (this is the most important part) while paying for stock and not making any income due to people stealing the stock instead of paying for it, that's their business (literally) and not yours. You have done your duty, which is to inform management that people are stealing, that they should install security cameras and so forth; they told you to lay off, and so you should do exactly that and lay off.

Now, the rub is that a company which has expenses (stock) and no income (purchases) is not a company that makes money (clearly, if every item on your balance sheet is a debit then you're not making any money). A company which makes no money is not a company that is able to spend money. A company which is not able to spend money is, in particular, not able to spend money on things like e.g. hiring workers (i.e. you) to work for them. In such a company, I would be extremely afraid in terms of job security, because the company is not likely to be solvent (even if they are solvent now, they may not be solvent for long). As a store staff, you have some idea, or can easily get it, of how much rake the company gets on a daily basis, so you can determine how solvent you think the company is. However, my advice would be, simply for reasons of job security, to look for a job at a company which is more financially responsible. Better to find another job now while you already have one, than to randomly be told one day "sorry, the company isn't solvent anymore" and then be out on your ass.

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I've worked in retail and as a security guard in the past so I know the laws surrounding this where I live (NSW/Australia).

As a retailer I was told to absolutely do not try to be a hero or do something. This was the extent of directive from management, nothing more. We were required to report it but not try to stop the offender.

As a security guard it gets a bit more tricky because you are taught about laws and what will stick in court and what won't.

Stealing is by definition taking an item from its rightful owner with the intent of permanently depriving them of that item. This intent can not be proven until after they left the store so the first point was you must wait until they leave. As a retailer I doubt they would expect you to leave. Second issue was the dangers of a false imprisonment. If you stop someone and you can not prove a crime was committed (ie find stolen goods on them and/or have them on CCTV and/or witness the crime yourself with a clear line of sight which has not been broken from the time of the crime to the time of the arrest) then you've committed false imprisonment and you can end up in a lot of trouble. Then there's the issue of personal safety during the arrest, arrest laws (is it lawful, justified and appropriate) etc. You get the picture.

I doubt a retailer would be expected to know all these and apply them, loss prevention is a fulltime job in itself.

Next time you see shoplifting definitely report it, maybe if it gets bad enough they'll invest in some loss prevention measures.

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Start a log and mark the time/date of:

  • Occurrence of theft
  • What you did:
    • Did you ask them to leave, ignore it, something else?
  • Report occurrence to management
  • Management's response

If management already said "They tell me not to interfere or jeopardize my safety." then just follow that advice.

If you ask the next person to leave and they smash you over the head with a can of goods then management will say "You're fired, we told you not to interfere several times."

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    Not sure why the DV. It's a good answer but doesn't highlight the thinking behind it enough. What if "Manager A" is a bad actor and knows the person who is stealing. Now, OP has seen the theft and has been seen on CCTV observing the theft and doing NOTHING. Higher up managers might notice the theft, review CCTV and blame OP as an accomplice. Logging these details is a very valid thing to do!!
    – josh
    May 17 at 8:47

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