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Home Back Issues No. 13: Managerial: Stolen Items

Jan 25

No. 13: Managerial: Stolen Items

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Stolen Items

Reader Question: Several of our technicians have complained to me that small personal items have "begun disappearing" from their lockers and desks since a new aide began working with us. They're obviously suspicious of her. Since I, as PI, run the lab, they look to me to "solve", or at least investigate, the "problem". But I am not trained for this, and furthermore I don't want to innocently injure the reputation of a new hire. Yet I want to seem sympathetic and responsive. What's my best strategy?

Expert Comments:

Unfortunately, being a manager is not an easy job. As a PI, you are part of management and have an obligation to ensure the safety of the workers in the lab -- including protecting the workers’ personal property as well. Review the Faculty Handbook. In many cases, it will set forth a description of your job duties as a PI probably including your obligation for the safety of those in the lab. However, be advised a number of institutional handbooks are quite vague on specific duties of a PI.

By turning to you, the employees have filed a complaint with the University and you as a faculty member are under an obligation to investigate or aid in this process. However, you probably should seek out the assistance of the human resources department and/or the Security Department since they are best equipped to handle such delicate matters.

You should ensure that you document the complaints made to you (including name of complainant, date, and what was said). This has nothing to do with the complainants' suspicions as to the new aide.

There are also a number of practical suggestions to deal with this issue. You may want to suggest to the lab employees that they refrain from bringing valuables to the lab with them. You could also suggest that they keep locks on their lockers to prevent this in the future. You may also want to have a meeting of all the employees in your lab to warn them that there have been some reported thefts or “mysterious disappearances” and to discuss the above methods to attempt to prevent any future incidents from occurring.

Comments by Melissa Fleischer, Esq., a management-side employment law attorney with over twenty years experience and founded HR Learning Center LLC.

She is the speaker of the upcoming audio conference Workplace Violence: Lessons Learned from the Harvard Poisoning and the Yale Murder

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This document has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney in connection with any specific questions or issues that may impose additional obligations on you and your company under any applicable local, state or federal laws.

Comments (8)
written by Kasper88, January 19, 2010
It isn't your job to do the investigation, but it is your job to deal with laboratory problems, and this is one of them. So, you should contact security and explain the situation to them and let them do their jobs. One approach would be to set up security cameras in the area and try to ascertain what is happening to these personal items. Alternatively, you could make a general announcement that personal items have gone missing and that all personnel need to be more careful and should secure their personal belonging whenever possible. That may alert the wrongdoer to the problem and it could go away, but you might want to filter out that kind of person anyway, so maybe the security camera approach is better. Either way, you do not want to accuse someone of a crime without clear evidence.
written by Coincidental?, January 20, 2010
In an institute where I used to work, there was a rash of "mysterious disappearance"of lab secretary purses. Suspicion fell on a new hire. Then a PI obseved there was a lot of traffic in halls at lunchtime. Seems with many staff going out for lunch, doors were left propped ajar, and bands of locsl tenagers, out on their high school lunch break, were enterng and grbbing purses laying in plain view from hall--under secretary's desk. Solution: each sec'y was given a small locker for her purse, and warned not to leave it underfoot at her desk. Staff were reminded to keep main doors to biilding fully locked and shut.Voila! "Thefts" stopped.
written by Robin, January 25, 2010
Good for you for not just assuming it's the new hire. The accusations might be nothing but group think. At all times, and even more so in uncertain times, many people feel threatened by a new hire and may project that unease in less than rational ways. Fleischer's advice seems good to me. Make sure those official theft reports get filed. Whatever you do, let Security be the ones to handle any investigation(s)!
written by Donna, January 27, 2010
When we hung a small video camera our problem with disappearing food disappeared. We didn’t catch the culprit but we solved the problem.
written by Hungry PI, January 27, 2010
From what I hear,the problem of stealing snacks and lunches from the lab refrigertor is a much bigger issue than theft of purses. I have myself beeen victimized several times ( they even took cookies my kids had made me!) despite a HUGE sign on frig door asking staff not to take food of others. I have thought of purposely leaving Salmonella-laced food for the culprit. Any opther suggestions?
written by Swiper, February 02, 2010
I steal snacks and lunches out of my lab fridge. I only get paid 25k/year and I can barely afford a studio apartment with my wife and a roommate. I came to America for a chance to have a better life and so far it is much worse than my Italian motherland.
written by really?, February 02, 2010
To Swiper- After you agree to work there and after you sign your lease for an apartment, you think it's your coworkers who should pay you back for your poor financial decisions through the theft of their food. Somehow your coworkers are responsible for rent rates and your pay scale, and your perceived worse off life in America.
written by Erwin, February 02, 2010
Swiper is being very brave here to fess-up he/she is stealing in the lab fridge. While this is very commendable the consequences of his/her act are to overall poison the lab atmosphere and destroy elementary trust that should be in the workplace. I read some bitterness at the low pay and some sort of entitlement that coming to America should deliver a better life. My suggestion to Swiper is take responsibility for making the choice of coming and taking a chance in this lab for being successful and move up the academic ladder. If that does not work then go back to Italy or try another place that fits your talents better. Your team mates are probably paid equally low wages and making little money is no justification for taking from others. It sounds like you are mad at the system and are trying to get back at it somehow, but you are just hurting your colleagues and yourself by poisoning the atmosphere. Also, if you are ever caught you will lose the respect of all the colleagues around you which is a major network that you could benefit from in the future. My suggestion for you is to stop it and even treat your lab mates for a special dessert, this will go a long way in making them like you. Vent some of your frustration through engaging in a sport or other activity outside the lab.

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