Shocking news fails to prevent theft

Shocking news fails to prevent theft

Helen Tracey, a lecturer in human resource management at Newcastle Business School, looks at the news surrounding e-commerce giant Amazon and the controversy surrounding the covert surveillance of employees.

The news that online retail giant Amazon is supposedly showing its employees footage of their colleagues caught stealing to deter them from committing similar crimes has been reported across the globe.

The timing of the apparent expose coincides with the company’s announcement that it is to open a new warehouse in Manchester creating a thousand new jobs, albeit that the alleged malpractice happened within its US premises.

On balance, reports of such practice by large organisations should be taken with a pinch of salt, given the propensity (and ability) of a small number of disgruntled employees to create a social media firestorm. However, previous whistleblowing cover up scandals in other areas of the business community warn us that it is worthwhile objectively reflecting on the implications of such reports, be they fact or fiction.

The controversy surrounds not only the covert surveillance of employees, but that their crimes are being broadcast to current workers. The footage reportedly shows the silhouettes of the individuals concerned branded with their fate, such as “arrested” and “terminated”. It has already been pointed out that such shock tactics, should they actually be used, stand out as pretty old-fashioned in the emotionally intelligent modern business world.

It cannot be denied that employee fraud costs businesses millions annually in the UK alone, and that this amount is increasing year on year. Yet the approach of scaring workers into compliance still used by many companies misses the point – the majority of them are honest and hard working. Negative reinforcement therefore not only fails to prevent crime, but also demotivates and offends the remaining workforce.

The alternative is to tackle not the symptom, but the root cause of the problem. As a first step, does the organisation have strong values which are used as the basis for recruitment and positively reinforced throughout employment? Is there a culture of openness where employees can raise their concerns with the assurance of a prompt and effective response? Finally, are pay and benefits considered fair and competitive with any workforce changes clearly explained?

These reports were accompanied by the news that the response will be to introduce warehouse automation to remove the risks of theft. While technology will perhaps improve the speed and efficiency of service it will deprive the committed majority of a much needed job based on the misdemeanours of a few.

I for one believe that the removal of the “human” from not only the human resources practices of an organisation, but its operations as well, will significantly impact on the bottom line. Whether this will equate to losses from fraud remains to be seen.