We’ll be at Ethisphere’s 2024 Global Ethics Summit in Atlanta, April 22-24. Learn more about the show here.


Conducting Undercover Investigations in the Workplace

Conducting Undercover Investigations in the Workplace

Know the risks and take precautions to ensure your investigation is credible and fruitful.

One of the most difficult workplace crimes to solve is internal theft. The act of trying to catch employees who steal from the workplace is challenging and comes with risks.

These thefts can range from small items, such as office supplies, to large amounts of cash, or money through embezzlement or other types of crimes. As a result of this, it may be necessary to conduct undercover investigations in order to find the perpetrator, gather evidence, and take the necessary actions to stop the theft and prosecute.

Investigate Discreetly

A carefully managed, discreet investigation can be an effective way to detect and stop employee thefts of time, product and property. But there can also be repercussions including image and PR issues, management issues, or the leaking of confidential information.

Suspect an employee is stealing? Download the free Cheat Sheet: How to Confront Employee Theft.

If your company is informed of a theft or potential crime through a worker or a union representative, you must investigate the issue. Before you engage in any undercover investigations, there are some things you need to know and to consider.

Before You Investigate

First and foremost, make sure the investigation is warranted and appropriate. Some examples of this include drug abuse, theft of company secrets, bullying or other forms of harassment, workplace safety violations, or any time a claim needs to be investigated but a direct approach may not yield the complete or desired results.

If you have received information of criminal activity but need more specific details in order to stop the theft or dangerous activity, an undercover investigation may be your best method to obtain it. This is also a good tactic if you are trying to track any losses that may take place without knowing who is involved, or if there are violations of company policy.

For help with planning your investigation, download the free Investigation Plan Template.

Pick the Right Investigator

I recommend hiring an agency or specifying an experienced investigator who can help you plan and execute the strategic steps necessary to conduct the investigation, including planning, options, dates and times, updates, recommendations, etc. This will help to achieve the best results with the minimum amount of risk to your business. It may even be necessary to place an operative to work undercover in your company.

Recipe for a Successful Investigation

In order to be successful, your undercover investigations should achieve the following:

  • Collect hard evidence that will hold up in court. All interviews should be documented.
  • Make sure that all legal and ethical issues are addressed, especially if cameras or other recording devices are utilized.
    • Note: Be careful of engaging in entrapment, which is defined as “causing one to commit an act he would not have otherwise committed without enticement.” This means that the undercover operative will “qualify” all found issues and criminal behaviors and document them to show that that the illegal acts in question had been previously committed by the suspect employees. This will successfully preclude the assertion of an entrapment defense and would help assure your case is prosecutable.
  • The investigation should be quick and cost-effective.
  • Your HR department and your legal counsel should be informed of any undercover investigations you undertake.
  • All employees should be treated with respect and never threatened, coerced or intimidated.
  • The undercover investigator should supply you with a thorough summary of findings, ideally from at least three sources.
  • Make sure any statements taken from the accused are in writing, under threat of perjury. Then follow up with a meeting that is recorded and make sure all parties know it is being recorded. Have all statements and accusations read out loud.

While undercover investigations are not the norm, they are sometimes necessary. When conducted correctly, they can stop millions of dollars in theft, aid in the prosecution of the criminals and even help to get good employees back on the right track.