Employee theft can be a problem at any restaurant. Often, people think of theft as taking money out of a cash register or walking out the back door with expensive equipment, but theft can happen in little ways such as an employee handing out free drinks or meals to friends. So what do you do when this happens? Here are some tips to help guide you.

Take Preventative Measures

Make the rules clear. If you let employees eat discounted or complimentary meals, be sure to set clear boundaries. If this isn't allowed, make that clear as well. Don't expect your staff to learn the rules by watching others. Additionally, you may confuse your employees if they see you handing out food to your friends. Make sure your staff is aware that they don't have the same privileges as you—the owner or manager of the restaurant. Your policies and employee wages should also be clear and fair. If employees feel like they're not being paid fairly, they'll be more likely to steal from you.

Decide on Your Policies

If an employee steals from you, they should be terminated, right? Well, not necessarily. Stealing cash or equipment should most likely result in being terminated, but what about not following the food and drink rules? Should you fire an employee who ate a sandwich that was returned back to the kitchen? It's critical that you think through these scenarios and set clear policies for managers to follow. Without specific guidelines, you could unintentionally treat employees unequally.

Also, if you have an employee with health issues, such as diabetes, make sure to educate yourself because eating on the job could be considered a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Investigate Potential Issues

If you see an employee handing freebies to a friend or slipping cash from the register into their pocket, conduct an investigation. Ask them what they were doing and why. You may find that their friend, a paying customer, spilled their drink and needed a new one, or that they were breaking a $20 bill for a customer and put the money into their pocket to carry a food tray. Sometimes a situation isn't what it appears to be, so always give your employee the option to explain the scenario and their actions. If another employee reports their colleague for breaking the rules, you'll need to conduct a thorough investigation.

Document Incidents

Every incident of theft should be documented—even if you never determine who the actual perpetrator was. You'll want to record the date, time, and items that were stolen. If your investigation reveals that a certain employee was responsible, make sure to document these details in a way that all managers can access and refer to in the future.

Use Progressive Discipline

Based on the policies you've established, implement the appropriate disciplinary measures. For instance, you may want to give the employee a written warning on the first offense, then a suspension, and then termination. Of course, this will depend on the severity of the situation. If an employee steals a large sum of money, you may want to get the police involved. Just make sure your actions are documented and communicated to the employee and all managers.

Take the Right Measures after Termination

Shelley Frost, at the Houston Chronicle, says that after termination, managers should not only collect badges, uniforms, and any company equipment, but they should also change electronic codes that the employee has access to. These measures can help keep your business safe after terminating an employee.

When dealing with employee theft, keep these tips and considerations in mind. By taking the appropriate action, you can help protect yourself, your staff, and the well-being of your business.