Looking for Theft, Employers Trample on Worker Privacy

Retailers are cracking down on employees who allegedly steal from them, but their methods are alarming for anyone concerned with the right to privacy.

According to the National Retail Foundation, employees are responsible for 44 percent of “missing merchandise.” Such swindles are occasionally jaw-dropping; in late 2009, a Saks clerk stole $130,000 by running fake returns onto a gift card.

Restaurants face the same issue. The National Restaurant Association claims that fast food restaurants “lose up to seven percent of sales to employee theft,” according to The Atlantic.

It is inevitable that employers would try to track employees in order to prevent these loses. Their approach to doing so, however, is increasingly aggressive. The same Atlantic article reported that Dunkin’ Donuts now monitors every moment of their employees’ workdays with cameras; when they suspect theft, they combine that surveillance with their record of “dynamic keystrokes”—in other words, which buttons workers are pressing on the register, in which order.

Retailers are now using huge databases to fight employee theft. Their information-gathering techniques for these databases, when an incident is suspected, can be outrageous:

Some of the employees, who submit written statements after being questioned by store security officers, have no idea that they are admitting committing a theft or that the information will remain in databases [….]

[T]he databases, which are legal, are facing scrutiny from labor lawyers and federal regulators, who worry they are so sweeping that innocent employees can be harmed. The lawyers say workers are often coerced into confessing, sometimes when they have done nothing wrong, without understanding that they will be branded as thieves.

The article describes just such a worker: Keesha Goode, for whom “$34.97 in missing merchandise was enough to destroy her future in retailing.” Her employer forced her to claim responsibility for the loss, of which she says she is innocent; now she is having trouble finding a job because future employers see her name flagged with “‘verified admission’ for ‘theft of merchandise.'”

Employers abusing their power over their workers is an all-too-common story . The Harman Firm aggressively advocates for employees’ rights; contact us if you have questions about mistreatment you’ve faced at work.