More on Trusting Employees

The piece I wrote about trusting employees (Message #274) — about the kind of safeguards you should effect against pilferage — provoked a lot of objections. KM, a corporate trainer and a good friend, took exception to my attack on academics. “That was such crap,” she said. “You have to think a little deeper.” JF, master of the epic e-mail, dispatched a four-page refutation.

Here is part of it: “In the case of your academic-turned-entrepreneur, maybe it didn’t have anything to do with the fundamental, objective unreliability of human character. Maybe he was just a bad manager. “In the case of the bar with the rigid controls, you practically baited those guys into figuring out how to beat the system. Especially since the system they were out to beat wasn’t a human but a machine.

You took all the personal emotion and sense of relationship-responsibility out of it. “I worked in a hardware store one summer. A place with creaking wood floors, 9-foot shelves, and 1,000 bins of fascinations — every one of which offered something easy to slip into your pocket if you had wanted to. There was a half-blind old lady named Elsie who worked the register. And the register itself was one of those ancient things that operated with the pull of a hand crank, no electricity required.

Anyone who wanted to dip his hand in the register could have done so without ever being discovered. “And they would have, too. If it were not for Russ. “Russ owned the store. He was a tall, skinny guy. He wore wire-rimmed glasses at the end of his nose. During the summer, 15 high-school and college-age guys worked for him . . . any one of whom could have helped himself to a five-finger discount. “But I’ll be damned if he didn’t win over employees to such a degree that even on the days that he didn’t come into the store, every employee showed up a half-hour before the shop opened to get things ready.

No employee took more time for lunch than it took to run over to the WaWa across the street for a sandwich, and every shelf got refilled from the stockroom the moment we saw more than two cans of an item cross the sales counter. “How did he do it? “He walked around being damn sincere. He didn’t pretend that he trusted employees. He just trusted them. Not blindly. Not deceptively either. But in a way that made the burden of proving him right fall squarely on the shoulders of the employee.” I agree completely with JF on one point: You shouldn’t pretend to trust people that you don’t trust.

And you should be able to find people you trust. Trust is — or should be — an individual matter. A discerning person will trust each person he deals with in a different way or to a different degree. Trusting all people equally, however sincerely, is naïve. Trusting no one is self-destructive. But on the subject of “how to keep employees honest,” I don’t believe it can be done by being the person Russ was. JF mentions that the young people who worked for Russ did so diligently — and I think that is because of the kind of manager he was. But I don’t think you can assume that an employee who works hard — even when the boss is away — is an employee who won?t steal.

It is very possible to work hard and even feel very loyal to your boss — and still steal from him. I know that for certain. If your employees have access to cash or valuable products and you have no safeguards against pilferage, they will steal from you. The easier you make it, the more they will steal. Not all of them. The great majority will not. But it doesn’t take many to make your profits disappear. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that someone was stealing from good old Russ. JF didn’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. You can take it from me or find it out for yourself: If you make it easy for your employees to steal, some of them will.