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Covid 19 and employee dishonesty

Will Covid 19 facilitate more opportunity for employee dishonesty? asks the investigator, David Kearns, pictured, of Expert Investigations. In his view, it will take potentially several years to identify the impact that the virus will have on employee dishonesty within the workplace.

It often takes a passing of time for many employee dishonest actions to be discovered and as the workplace has changed and will no doubt change, it will again take time for dishonest activities to be uncovered, especially where that dishonesty is being committed. The current working environment is something that we may not have envisaged and many workplaces and workspaces will be different to those pre-Covid. The workplace will change not only to streamline it but also from the business continuity perspective should a virus on this or a smaller scale attack.

I believe businesses will want flexibility, a reduction in the amount of employees, more use of sub contracted services, more use of remote working and less people within the working space, and similar changes. The Covid crisis has certainly given academics significant material for research for the next several decades regarding all aspects of societal change and not just the subject of employee dishonesty.

The obvious type of employee dishonesty that springs to the readers mind is always fraud. Particularly ‘white collar crime’. But employee dishonesty is more than just fraud, it is more than just criminal acts but also includes several acts which breach employment contracts and terms and conditions.

Stereotypically fraud will include asset misappropriation, ghost workers, expenses fraud, procurement fraud and many more recognisable adaptations. But consider other elements of dishonesty in the workplace such as theft. This can be theft of a product, theft of materials, theft of personal possessions. Civil offences include theft of data (intellectual property), false absenteeism (in effect skiving off from work long-term) to the less frequent offences such as selling, making or cultivating illegal drugs in the workplace, wilful damage or bullying or harassment.

Dishonest employees have always identified their opportunity to commit their dishonesty within the working environment. They have always rationalised their actions as to why they have taken a dishonest route. The motivation for their dishonesty is always for financial remuneration. In 21 years I have yet to see a dishonest employee behaving in such a manner for a charitable or philanthropic reason. It is always for their financial personal gain.

So how effective will many of the control measures that businesses have in place at present be in a new working environment for the future. The SME sector, which is the most vulnerable to employee dishonesty is also the sector which has the least control measures and situational crime protection measures in place at the present and therefore will the SME sector look at redressing this under new working environments, or will they remain as vulnerable to the dishonest employee.

It is my belief, and that of other commentators and professionals that significant factors will change that will affect the opportunity and the rationalisation of an individual when identifying and conducting a course of action that is dishonest. I believe the motivation will be the same, in financial remuneration but the motivation which is intrinsically linked to the rationalisation may be affected by the changes in our society and workplace due to Covid.

Opportunity:

Given the fact that there are now less employees including, middle, senior management and Directors within the workplace there is naturally less supervision. There is less natural surveillance of individuals going about their work. Given the fact that there are less individuals in the workspace there is less territoriality; less of an ownership by individuals for the territory in which they work and the ownership that they feel to towards that work in that area and the business.

Many businesses, potentially those smaller ones within the SME sector may also have employees ‘double up on roles’ due to reduce numbers within the workplace. They in effect will be fulfilling a colleague’s role in their absence. This may give them access to locations, whether that be physical or IT locations that they would not have previously had. Therefore access control measures may not be as effective as pre-Covid.

There will be less natural supervision of employees and colleagues with many individuals working from home and teams or departments not being regularly together and working in a manner that induces osmosis. Will colleagues and supervisors be readily able to identify changes in behaviour or activity from another employee which may be suspicion or evidence of them being dishonest?

The recruitment, interview and induction process for new employees may well radically be changed from pre-Covid days. Many of this may be done online with little if any face-to-face interaction with those recruiting and with less interaction with a larger team and colleagues on appointment to a position. This may allow for a naturally dishonest individual to slide ‘under the radar ‘of potential detection into an organisation with the intention of exploiting the business from the outset. Are genuine documents and certifications being scanned to recruitment and interview teams or are they fictitious documents and CVs, that under current conditions are hard to verify and that face-to-face interaction working as a barometer of judgement and individual.

Rationalisation:

Research by academics over the last century has discussed at length why a ‘white collar criminal’ will turn to dishonest fraudulent activities. How will they rationalise their actions? This includes the moral question. The question of punishment. The question of making a rational choice. It has even been shown that white-collar criminals will weigh up the pros and cons of their activities by writing them down on a piece of paper and then making their judgement. (Reference; ‘Why They Do It’ by Eugene Soltes).

My view is that the majority if not all employees committing any form of dishonesty (as previously mentioned) will go through an equally similar thought process. Potential reward over potential detection.

The employee will need to rationalise their actions. The dishonest employee is generally somebody that has not got a criminal conviction and would view criminal activity as being the burglar that breaks into their home, or the car thief who steals their car, often not considering their activity to be criminal. The dishonest employee breaching a civil issue such as theft of data may not wholly concur that their actions are dishonest as they rationalise their reasoning.
That rationalisation takes many forms and could include more common ones which include:

– not being paid enough;
– being overlooked for promotion;
– an overburdening workload;
– high company profits;
– the perception of other employees and senior managers being in a ‘cushy’ position. ‘It’s all right for them’; and
– not feeling valued.

But how will that rationalisation change now in a new workspace. Will there be other factors that affect the rationalisation and decision-making of an employee to take a dishonest turn? Could the fact that an employee has to go into the work place whilst other employees work remotely affected decision-making. Will that employee feel that they have got the ’harder deal or the rough end of the stick’?

The home working employee will not have the daily commute, the cost of the commute, the extra hours within the home place and certainly would not be placed in a potentially vulnerable position of contracting Covid (at the time of writing the vaccination process is underway) within the workplace where shielding and isolation is potentially limited. I do accept that there will be employees that want to be within the workplace and not home working.

A huge number of people have lost their jobs, had to seek lower paid employment and many are facing redundancy. How does this affect the finances within the home? Partner, spouse or family member losing their job reduces the monies coming into the household. This will almost certainly put pressure on the family members, on their relationships and their ability to live as they wish with sufficient food and warmth.

If that employee has identified an opportunity within the workplace to be dishonest will they now rationalise their actions based upon the financial need? We are in a time where as individuals we are trying to survive. Trying to get through the pandemic and return to better times. Notwithstanding the moral question of right or wrong an employee may overlook this as a survival instinct kicks in.

Some initial research by the Gambling Commission and also as cited by CIFAS (UK fraud prevention service) gives an indication that there is an increase in gambling. An increase in addiction.

Will there be an increase in other addictions such as illegal drugs and alcohol? An addiction generally involves and need for finances to support it. If finances are not lawfully readily available will the employee rationalise their actions for dishonesty in order to fund their addiction? Also notwithstanding the mental health issues.

Motivation:

Jeremy Bentham describes 14 pleasures. One of those pleasures is the pleasure of ‘wealth’. What is the motivation for an employee to be dishonest? Financial reward and remuneration is always the motive. Whether that financial reward is for the security, routine or hedonistic pleasures of life, financial reward is always the motivating factor. Rewards do not always have to be huge figures. The reward will be affected by the salary, income and lifestyle of the individual.
An individual earning £20,000 a year would hugely be rewarded by being able to steal £500 per month in some form. This figure would not be appealing to a director earning £100,000 the year.

£800,000 of dishonesty for that director would be an appealing reward. (Ref; Cwmbran financial director jailed for £800,000 fraud. BBC January 8, 2021).

In 21 years of investigating dishonest employees, I have seen significant senior individuals, middle management and ‘blue collar’ workers equally being dishonest both criminally and civilly. There is not an industry or business sector that is exempt from the dishonest employee and in all cases I have seen that the financial remuneration has been the rewarding factor.

In almost every case it has been for the material items such as holidays, cars, houses and general materialistic goods. In the case of dishonest employee Julie Nickerson, in which I was involved, who stole £2.3m from her employer in summing up the judge said “an orgy of greed and self indulgence”. (Mail Online May 2, 2014).

There have been many cases where the dishonesty has been to fund an addiction but predominantly it is those individuals that are seeking an increase in wealth and status. In his studies Bentham particularly states that with money an individual has control and status. Will that motivation change due to Covid and the reasons mentioned earlier in the article?

I do not think the motivation will change as the motivation still will remain for financial reward. Dishonest employees will still be dishonest for the material and hedonistic reasons, having identified an opportunity to be dishonest.

I feel in many cases, without being able to substantiate this at this time of writing, as this is clearly just my opinion, now with the rationalisation changing some employees may well turn to dishonesty in order to survive through the pandemic, until better days come back. That honest law-abiding citizen may well juggle with the moral conscience of doing something that they know is dishonest, although rationalising their reasoning. Whether to be able to put food on the table or to fund that addiction the reasoning may be changed temporarily, but that reasoning may change from temporary to permanent.

Clearly the rationalisation for some employees will change but I do believe that the majority of employees that are or do become dishonest will remain for that financial gain of wealth, status and therefore control, having identified the opportunity. They will still weigh up the pros and the cons and maybe now the pros stack up significantly more in favour than the cons, as the chance of identification and being caught will potentially be reduced. Not that in most cases the chances of being caught were high before the pandemic.

Based on my experience of 21 years and fully understanding the reality of opportunities and motivation within the workplace then I do think that there is an intrinsic duty on employers and directors to be realistic, mature, and responsible in understanding that the workplace has changed and therefore the opportunities for the dishonest employee has changed. Some employees have, are and will look for opportunities to effect their dishonesty. The opportunity has always been there; it is now potentially more exposed.

Dave Kearns is also on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fightingdishonestemployees/.


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