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A Salesperson Discovers Her Store Owner Is Cheating Her Out of Commissions. How Should She Respond?

He lied to her about two huge sales.

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ELIZABETH KRISTOF WAS A sales professional at Elegance Fine Jewelry, a successful family-owned store in a high-end resort town in Florida. Elizabeth had worked at the store for 12 years, ever since James Turner, the current owner, took the store over from his mother. Like all Elegance sales professionals, she was paid a base salary plus a commission equal to 5 percent of her personal gross profit production.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at kate@performanceconcepts.net

In mid-January, Brad Fitzgerald came in looking for a special gift for his 20th anniversary. After Elizabeth had spent a considerable amount of time with him over several days, Brad selected a natural fancy yellow diamond ring that had been brought in on memo for him, and negotiated a price of $27,500. He asked Elizabeth for some time since he still had a few weeks until the anniversary, and he wasn’t prepared to take it with him that day. The ring was put into the showcase and quickly became a conversation piece with women who visited the store.

The following week, Elizabeth returned to the store after a day off and noticed that the ring was no longer in the showcase. She asked James about it, and he told her that the vendor had requested that the ring be returned. She reminded him that Brad was interested in the ring, but James told her that he’d checked with Brad, who had decided against the purchase, opting instead to take his wife to Paris for their anniversary.

In early February, James brought in two matched pairs of four-carat total weight round diamonds for Henry Askew, another local businessman and longtime friend who was looking to buy a pair of diamond earrings for his wife’s birthday. The diamonds arrived while James was away on a family vacation, so he asked Elizabeth to contact Henry and to arrange a time to show him the diamonds. He told her not to worry about the price — that he would work the details out with Henry when he returned. The next day, Henry came in, selected one of the diamond pairs and worked with Elizabeth to choose suitable mountings. He thanked Elizabeth for her time and said he would follow up with James in the coming week. When James returned, he told Elizabeth he’d contact Henry personally and take over from there. Elizabeth wasn’t concerned; she felt that the sale was solid, and store policy indicated that she would be entitled to at least half of the commission on the sale for her effort. A week later, when she asked James about Henry’s decision, he told her that Henry had learned that his wife did not want large diamond earrings and was thinking about other options. Elizabeth thought it odd that Henry would back out, as he’d seemed so committed.

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With the fast pace and the high volume of in-season business at the store, it wasn’t long before Elizabeth forgot about both Brad and Henry’s transactions. Neither man’s change of heart had kept the store — or Elizabeth — from achieving monthly goals.

The following month, Elizabeth’s husband Joe, a well-known local artist, surprised her with tickets to the Children’s Hospital Spring Charity Gala. Elegance and the Turner family had traditionally been sponsors of the event, and over the years they had donated several spectacular pieces to the evening’s live auction. James had made it clear to his mother even before he took over the store, though, that he was not a “black-tie kind of guy” — so Elegance hadn’t had a representative at the Gala since 2005. Elizabeth was more than excited to attend the event for the first time.

At one point during the cocktail hour, Elizabeth spotted Brad Fitzgerald, Henry Askew, and their wives. As she and Joe approached, she was shocked to see that both women were wearing the pieces she had shown their husbands — the ones James told her had not been purchased. She managed to engage in the usual social small talk, keeping it very brief and making no mention of the women’s new bling. While Mrs. Askew’s diamond studs could well have been purchased anywhere, Mrs. Fitzgerald’s yellow diamond ring was very distinctive and was obviously the same one that had been in the store.

Elizabeth kept her suspicions to herself but decided to investigate. At the next opportunity, she looked up a few other important pieces that had been brought into the store over the previous year and had supposedly been sent back to vendors after customers lost interest. Along with the Fitzgerald ring and the Askew diamonds, several additional pieces had been noted in the inventory system as purchased from vendors. Some were later marked as “broken up” or “sold.” One was marked as “lost” and a few still showed as in inventory, though they were nowhere to be found. It didn’t take long for Elizabeth to conclude that James was selling merchandise “off the record,” altering the company’s books and denying her and other sales professionals commissions they had legitimately earned.

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Although Elizabeth recognized that as a business owner, James could do whatever he wanted with his inventory, she felt disappointed and betrayed. In her view, he was undermining the integrity of the business while being horribly unfair to her and to her associates.

The Big Questions

  • Should Elizabeth confront James with her suspicions?
  • Since other sales associates were involved, do they have a right to know about the off-the-books sales?
  • Elizabeth have a moral obligation to report her concerns to local tax authorities?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Bernie S.
Ephrata, PA

If she was hired as a commissioned salesperson, he OWES her. With interest. Stealing the sale is, in my opinion, illegal in that instance. And she should quit, because she’s working for a dishonest man.

Newton S.
Flowood, MS

Yes indeed! Confront him in a private, professional way. Stand firm if the policies described are really in effect. Always remember this warning I was given early in life: if someone will lie to you, they will steal from you.

Daniel S.
Cambridge, MA

Well I’d be pissed if this was me it was happening to. And she has good reason to be. As a store owner who used to have employees who were paid on commission, I can’t imagine anything more sleazy and disgusting than screwing the people you depend on in this way. Even if the guy is selling them off the books, the employees should still get their cut. How the guy declares or doesn’t declare sales isn’t their problem, but they should get paid. If I were her, I’d confront him publicly in front of the other employees with it. I’d tell him that if he didn’t pay up for all the missed commissions, I’d walk and go to the closest competitor and let all my regular customers know just what was going on. These days, the labor market is so tight, she wouldn’t have any problem finding another job. I’m on the fence about talking to the tax people as she doesn’t really know whether or not he’s truly hiding the income.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

Yes, Elizabeth needs to talk with James. Her important discussion is a search for the truth and not rumors or suspicions. Clarification is the issue, and if it appears that James is moving items in order to bypass his requirement of paying commission, then Elizabeth is working at the wrong jewelry store. Without concrete paperwork, reporting this to the local tax authorities would not only be inappropriate, but could potentially leave Elizabeth open to legal action from Elegance Fine Jewelry.

Fred F.
Hyattsville, MD

As a second-generation owner/partner in our store, this totally disgusts me. Your staff is what makes you, and if you are going to use them like that and not share what is owed to them, then I have no problem with her giving her two weeks’ notice and finding another job in town. She has enough of a following to make her desirable to another store, and if she has proof of anything, she should contact the IRS and suggest that they audit him. If he is indeed cheating, then he deserves to be made an example of. It is owners like that that give our industry a bad name. I have no problem having a cheater exposed and punished. If she wants to confront him before progressing that is her decision, but the proof seems to be there, and why should she continue to be used and not compensated for her work? Hopefully this would be an example to others to stay on the right side of the law.

Bill C.
Ridgefield, CT

If I was Elizabeth, I would sit down with James. Explain to him what I saw at the Gala, then after some investigation, I noticed the earrings and ring were sold under the table, plus other inventory items over a period of time! Either pay me and the staff what is owed to us for commissions, or, I report you!

James, you own the business, we don’t, so you will be the one in trouble with agencies. Once he pays them, quit and take all of their customer book with them!

Jennifer T.
Oconomowoc, WI

She should ask him about these items. Not to confront him, but to find out why she was lied to and it was kept a secret from her. Maybe it wasn’t intentional on his part, maybe it was. Either way, piece of mind goes a long way.

Marc M.
Midland, TX

What an unethical POS James is! I mean I don’t know how you can go down for embezzling from your own company, but it seems like he certainly is. It’s very clear what has happened and Elizabeth has every right to confront him. Call him out! What’s he going to do? Fire you? You’re better off not working for a dirtbag like that anyway. Maybe give him one chance to explain it and tell the truth, but I don’t see how there is any other possible play out here. If he comes clean, then I would point-blank tell him that he HAS to pay everyone who helped with sales that he burned them on. If he doesn’t, then take it to the local tax collector. This guy is a bad character and needs to taken care of. There are no excuses for his actions and he can’t walk from this without repercussions.

Jim D.
Kingston, NH

Elizabeth is in a bit of a pickle, should she say something and possibly lose her job, notify the IRS and possibly lose her job but get the reward, or stay silent and hope the stuff hitting the fan doesn’t cost her, too? If James is cooking the books, it could lead to tax issues and potential store closure. Whistle-blower laws will shield her from certain retaliation.

I would suggest she should mention to James that she attended the gala and saw the yellow diamond ring … then see how James reacts. Hopefully he will come clean and do the right thing, but there are no guarantees in life and she needs to make sure she is protected. Elizabeth may also want to clue in her fellow employees to the situation, remembering that she needs to be ready to seek a new employer. From the sounds of it, Elegance may not be around much longer.

Taner A.
Istanbul, Turkey

Elizabeth should confront James about her suspicions. In my opinion, there were no other possibilities other than what she saw. James officially stole Elizabeth’s sales commissions. Because of this, others also have the right to know what is going on. She also should request from James her past commissions. If Elizabeth is convinced that everything will be recorded after she warned James, and if she still wants to continue working in the same place, she doesn’t need to report it to the tax authorities. However, she should inform the local tax authorities if she encounters a different attitude after the warning.

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Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

Elizabeth should absolutely confront James. Although he is the owner, he agreed to her salary plus commission, so now he is simply stealing from her. I think Elizabeth should approach James “nicely,” simply letting him know that she is completely aware of his thievery. From there, I would hope that he would apologize and give her and the other employees the money they deserve. Then, I would expect Elizabeth to pay closer attention to any future sales so it doesn’t happen again. If James doesn’t apologize and compensate everyone for their losses, I would look towards legal action.

Michael J.
Port Charlotte, FL

Definitely sit down and have a meeting with James saying how much of a “coincidence” it is that she saw not one, but TWO wives wearing the pieces she showed. If James in fact sold them, she is being stolen from. To do that to loyal, hard-working employees to save a few bucks is bound to backfire, especially when the records are as telling as the ones she found! It’s one thing to sell it off the books, but at least pay the commission and explain why. If he admits to the back-door deals, I would tell him that the tax issue is between him and the IRS, but the commission issue will be discussed with other employees AND with his family (if they still have any stake in the company) unless proper compensation is made.

Marc F.
Houston, TX

Provided Elizabeth can absolutely prove that James did in fact do what is alleged, then she should arrange a meeting with James, his mother, and the company attorney to provide the evidence of what James was doing. She should also have her attorney present with a demand for the commissions that she was cheated out of, as well as a generous separation check with a letter of agreement of resignation. Elizabeth should not contact other employees about the matter, as it’s none of her business.

Shevvy B.
Louisville, KY

I think she should confront the owner about the irregularities. If he doesn’t face up to the fact, she should report him to the other employees first, and if it’s not corrected, commissions paid, and promised to stop, he should be reported to the authorities. What he did was wrong, illegal, and should not be tolerated.

Edward S.
Garwood, NJ

If she doesn’t mind losing her job. Of course, James may not want to lose her either, so this may be a bargaining chip for her. If she is brave, confront him with a figure for her estimated commission, and give notice, as working for a thief is an impossible situation. If he really wants to keep her, ask for a higher base salary to make up for his thievery.

Ernie C.
Lawrence, KS

First, I hope that James is really fictional. There is no happy ending to this story if he is truly this dishonest. Having said that, there are two sides to every story. My advice is for the salespeople who contribute the most, meet outside the store. They can discuss the situation and develop a strategy to meet with James. There must be a confrontation.

Very tough situation, salespeople could lose their jobs and their livelihood. James could lose his reputation and his income producers. Let’s face it, great salespeople are worth their weight in gold and they don’t grow on trees. They need total respect. What’s going to happen at the meeting? Not good. If James doesn’t have a reasonable explanation, he has to make some tough choices.

My idea would be to get some sort of mediator. I would suggest someone in the jewelry business. Meet with all parties, develop a plan to continue the business with a method to verify all practices. James must either come up with some sort of settlement or lose his people. He will need to sacrifice power to someone else. He will have to win back their trust; his family should be part of disclosure. This situation is messy and tough …good luck to all!

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at kate@performanceconcepts.net.

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