Q. I've just learned one of our supervisors actively recruits employees into his multi-level marketing business. He may also be stealing office supplies.
An employee in the secretarial pool let me know what was happening but asked me to keep confidential that she came to me.
She said he asked her to come to his home for dinner. Because she knew he was involved in Amway, she asked, "This isn't a sales deal, is it?" and when he said "no" she didn't feel she could back out without insulting him.
She said from the moment she got to his house, she and several other guests were pitched to join his network and "make a little money on the side" selling products. She said she felt totally uncomfortable and thought I should know he said she could make enough money in a year to quit work.
She said she didn't feel able to leave without making a scene and that after dinner things got worse. The supervisor showed her his home office and she felt compromised when she realized the materials on his desk and filing cabinets looked like ones she'd been assigned to find when they went missing from office supplies. If this is true, it might explain why our office supply costs markedly increased this past year.
I think I've got a thief on my hands. What do I need to do? Should I call the supervisor into my office and let him know what his employee told me? Can I fire him?
A. Although you've focused on the potential theft, you have an employee who needs support. Your supervisor lured this employee to his house under false pretenses and lost her trust by sales pitching her and then letting her see potentially missing office supplies.
Take care of her first. Don't throw her under the bus by making her a focal point. Either give her confidentiality or reassure her she's protected against all types of potential retaliation from her supervisor.
You also need to treat your supervisor fairly. Before you take any action, consider your company's policies and investigate. You can't fire your supervisor for soliciting employees for his multi-level marketing program unless you have no-solicitation, moonlighting or conflict of interest policies in place. If you lack these policies, you may still decide to discipline him for poor judgment but be careful -- your supervisor has a right to freedom in his private activities.
Ask the supervisor about his soliciting of employees. To how many employees did he offer this opportunity? Was this something he discussed with them during or after work hours? What did he say to employees and how did they respond?
If you discover your supervisor asked employees during work hours to moonlight and told them they could make enough money to quit their day job, he used seriously poor judgment and even worked against your company's interests. If your supervisor talked with employees after hours, counsel your supervisor that he cannot ask employees to "join him" in a private business venture without them feeling pressured. Depending on other circumstances, his actions merit a written reprimand, a suspension without pay or possibly termination.
At the same time, "behaviors that are mildly obnoxious," says attorney Dan Eaton, "such as the unwanted invitation to house parties or even the suspected theft of company supplies don't necessarily warrant termination."
Next, ask your supervisor if he's ever taken office supplies out of the office for any reason. He may tell you he takes supplies occasionally when he has work projects to complete after hours. If he denies taking the supplies and you believe the employee, conduct a more detailed investigation. Attorney Brit Weimer suggests you "may want to hire an outside investigator to interview employees, get the facts and document the potential illegality, to avoid subsequent legal claims."
What supplies did the employee see in the supervisor's home? Has anyone else noticed office supplies walking out the door? Whoever does your investigation needs to ask questions neutrally to avoid starting a rumor landslide or defaming your supervisor.
"If the thefts and conflicts of interest are confirmed," says Weimer, "consider discharging the supervisor immediately. Even if you ordinarily apply progressive discipline to employee misconduct, theft is normally grounds for immediate termination."
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.