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Real Deal

When a Longtime Employee and Family Friend Steals from a Store and Vanishes, How Should the Owners Handle It?

Should he report the theft to the police and risk losing an important friendship?

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Ron Aldrin had worked in his family business for most of his life, even spending two years at the bench after he made it through college and GIA. His real love was the sales floor, though, working with clients and focusing on building the store’s vintage and estate department. Jim Aldrin, his father, made it clear to Ron and his sister Lori (who had the same education and experience, but a much better handle on the “back of the house” effort) that Aldrin’s would be their business to run when he retired in a couple of years. For the moment, Ron was content in his role as sales manager, and Lori was doing a great job as the office manager and controller.

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 [email protected]

Jim Aldrin was one of the first in their town to dive into gold buying and estate jewelry in the mid-2000s. The company’s longevity and reputation for integrity in the community helped propel them to the forefront of that very lucrative market and kept them there even when the rush of customers selling had slowed.

Early on, Jim established a tight protocol for buying that ensured compliance with all regulations and control over cash, inventory and scrap. There were only five people in the store (including Ron, Lori and himself) trained and authorized to buy. Each transaction was carefully processed and documented by the person handling the customer. Purchased items — re-saleable and scrap — were weighed and placed into separate bags, sorted by metal type and purity. The weight of the items in each bag was written on the outside of the bag and initialed by the buyer. All of the bags associated with a buy were placed together in one larger bag along with a detailed worksheet and copy of the seller’s ID. Buys were placed in a designated area of the vault where they were kept for 30 days. After the mandatory hold period, Jim would go through the buys, verify weights, identify pieces that would be refurbished for the estate department, and process scrap for dispatch to the refiner.

The process worked perfectly until six months ago, when Jim started to notice discrepancies between the weights written on some of the bags and his verification weights. At first, it was just a few bags of scrap and small amounts that he was willing to attribute to a combination of busy, distracted and careless. One Thursday, though, he came across a bag containing a large estate purchase that appeared to be short in weight by more than 10 grams. When he matched the buy to the detailed worksheet, he found that a 20-inch 14K gold chain and an 18K pendant were missing. Much to his dismay, the initials on that bag — and on nearly all of the other problem bags — were Lori’s.

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Jim called Lori into his office and showed her his list of discrepancies, along with the bags bearing her initials. He was careful not to accuse his daughter of deliberate misdeeds, but he was firm in reprimanding her for what he believed to be careless and serious mistakes. Lori was both surprised and indignant, as she knew she had always been meticulous about checking and re-checking weights before completing any transactions. She was certain that something else must have been going on after the bags were put into the safe, and she brought Ron into the conversation. Ron immediately jumped to the defense of his team, insisting that he had full confidence in the integrity of everyone working for him, while carefully avoiding the implication that Lori was responsible. Jim asked Ron to set up a staff meeting for the following Monday and told him and Lori not to mention the issue to anyone, but to be extra vigilant in the meantime. That evening, after everyone else had left, Jim had his security company come in and install an additional camera, focused directly on the safe where the buys were kept.

As Jim was about to begin Monday morning’s staff meeting, he noticed that Anna Colter, a 12-year employee, who had been off for the weekend, was not there. Ron tried to reach her, but when she didn’t answer her phone, he assumed she was on her way and the meeting went on. When Anna had still not arrived by the time the store was open, Ron became concerned. As he was about to try her phone again, Jim called him into his office and showed him a recording from the new camera, clearly showing Anna in the safe on Friday afternoon, apparently looking for specific bags and putting them into her pocket. They did a quick inventory of bags matched to the buy logs for the previous 30 days and found that there were three missing bags totaling just under $2,200 at cost — all of which had been taken in by Lori.

Ron felt sick. He had known Anna since they were kids and had trusted her completely. Her parents, who still lived in their town, had been close friends with Jim and his wife for longer than Ron could remember. He asked his dad for an hour to see if he could find her before they made any decisions or took any action. He left the store and drove to Anna’s apartment, where he learned that she had moved out just two days before, leaving no forwarding address.

The Big Questions

  • Should Jim report the theft to the police and risk his friendship with Anna’s family?
  • Should he try to find her through her parents and friends?
  • Should he be concerned about the reason behind Anna’s attempt to cast suspicion on Lori?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

David G. Atlanta, GA

I had exactly the same situation, but only with product. I had a rich customer who wanted to work part-time. She had already spent $40,000 with us; no reason to suspect anything wrong. Things started missing, then big things. I called a pawn shop down the street and asked, “I’m missing this, have you see it?”

Yes! I bought that and others.”

Turns out she was a kleptomaniac. Big family in town. I had her arrested and her attorney asked me, “How do we keep a 32 year-old woman and mother of three out of jail?”

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She paid everything in full retail. Otherwise, I would have taken her to court.

I would have her arrested, don’t enable her.

Mike B. Duluth, GA

Jim absolutely should report this to the police; this is stealing! Let the police track her down and recover his merchandise or the monetary equivalent. If Jim chooses not to involve the police, then no, he should not contact her family. This is either a legal matter or it’s not; there is no in between.

As far as risking his friendship with Anna or her family, I would ask what friendship? Anna stole from him, so obviously she doesn’t respect whatever friendship they have or had.

Bruce A. Sherwood Park, Alberta

This is super easy! 1. Call the police. 2. Mention it to the police when they arrive. 3. That is the job of the police. Still time for coffee!

Mary J. San Diego, CA

Anna’s attempt to shift blame to Lori makes this reprehensible. Yes, call the cops; also you might separately let Anna’s family know what’s going on—at least that Anna has not shown up and you are concerned, not what you suspect she has done.

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Steve L. Meridian, MS

What is the right thing? The right thing to do is to first question Anna. Her family should not be involved in store or legal business. If enough evidence is there to press charges, then charges should be pressed and followed through.

If you can’t find Anna, then proceed with prosecution if the evidence is clear.

Eric P. Elk River, MN

Unless I had a really close relationship with her parents and was confident they would support holding her accountable, I would quickly do an audit to determine exactly what was missing and go to the police with all of the facts I’d been able to establish. I’d then notify my insurance company. Without serious intervention, this young woman will repeat her behavior, damaging another business and eventually destroying her own life.

Confronting this situation is gut-wrenching, but failing to confront it is unconscionable on multiple levels. Each time this young lady repeats her offense, she will damage another business and become more entrenched in a life of crime. The only reason for not acting is fear of what others’ reactions may be. So take some deep breaths, pray to the Lord for guidance and strength to do what is right, and don’t look back.

Drue S.  Albany, NY

What a distressing situation. Unfortunately, over the last 43 years of being in business, I also have had trusted staff take materials and even cash.

It’s extremely important that the police are called and that the employee is prosecuted. This sends a clear message to the staff, community and your family that this is a business that knows the difference between right and wrong no matter what happens. I did lose a very close friend when her son, who was my bookkeeper at the time, stole from me. So understand that being honorable comes first; those that matter will respect you for standing up to your morals and convictions.

Joyce B. Centereach and Port Jefferson, NY

Absolutely contact the police! 100 percent!

This was a serious criminal act, as well as the fact that she tried to implicate a co-worker!!!!!

P.S.: This has happened to us. The person was taken into custody and an agreement was made for return of items with restitution. No charges filed!

George F. Lockport, NY

In our town, if you report it to the police, that report appears in the local newspaper and on our local radio station. Customers may feel uncomfortable about leaving their valuables with us if we can’t demonstrate that we have trustworthy staff.

Obviously she knows what she did. Family and friends will always believe her side of the story. It’s better not to say anything to them unless she went public with a conflicting story. I would accept the loss and use the experience as a painful lesson. Trust but verify.

Jake J. West Des Moines, IA

Do you involve the cops for a “friend” stealing from you? OF COURSE! Your beef is with Anna, not her family.

Ben G. Houston, TX

Move on. Write it off as a bad debt. With the new security camera, security has been updated. Everyone in the store will be ever vigilant.

Denise O. La Grange, IL

This is clear-cut theft. First, they have a video of Anna stealing. Second, because she jumps ship, it was orchestrated and premeditated. Call the police and file a report; you have the proof that she is guilty and the records of what is missing. It is unfortunate this took so long to discover, but it won’t take long to resolve. Criminals are dumb. It may take a few months for the cops to catch up, but she will use credit cards or call home, etc.

Her family are collateral damage of poor choices. Want to let her off so she can do it again to someone else? Now to approach her parents with a courtesy warning and an explanation of the situation after a police report. I think that is appropriate considering they are family friends, but that wouldn’t stop me from pressing charges. If Anna’s parents could get her to return the goods, would you call “no harm no foul”? That’s the bigger question.

Joel Z. Harrisburg, PA

This happened to us but a thousand times worse. We chose to recover as much jewelry and cash as we could. Our employee moved away and we found out she paid cash for a new townhouse. In hindsight, we wish we would have prosecuted because we feel horribly taken advantage of even ten years later.

Ralph H. Richmond, IN

Family, friends, customers, employees. Was something going on between Anna and Lori; was Ron “too defensive”? Did Anna just abscond with the loot, or had she been working with someone else? Too much is unknown.

The amount seems too small to risk a career, but it may have been enough for her. The camera is a good idea; it should be in Jim’s unique control, perhaps with a feed to his computer. The big risk: if the offender is still there, will customers’ items be next? Monitor more closely, photo all incoming items. Emphasize that Jim trusts his people, but must protect integrity with customers. Likely not worth pursuing Anna (but keep the evidence!). Set and follow policy, then back to work without looking over each other’s shoulder. You’ll know soon. Another will leave, someone’s behavior will change, or all is well.

Welcome to family business. Be careful when you mix the meanings of those four top categories (good luck with that one).

James D. Kingston, NH

Call the police? Do it fast before the thief has a chance to liquidate her ill-gotten gains! I am sure they have plenty of pictures of the miscreant, and hopefully she will be in cuffs soon. Hopefully the local district attorney will consider grand theft worthy of the fullest prosecution. After all, she is on video, red-handed. Once she is caught, I would also sue for return of the value of the goods she stole and alert other stores not to hire her.

I do not care why she did it; that is just an excuse. Luckily she didn’t steal a client’s piece. Five to 10 years in jail will teach her.

Todd T. Bowling Green, VA

Go to the parents first and locate her if possible, then hope to find out her reason for stealing. Take it from there. Obviously she must be fired, but she may need help and that’s what we’re supposed to do. It may come with punishment.

Alexander R. Brockton, MA

We are a team. We work together. If I did not prosecute a miscreant, it

would undermine everyone else’s commitment to the team. We prosecute.

Warren L. Baltimore, MD

Definitely tell the family of your suspicions. Tell them that it has nothing to do with their friendship of many years and that you would like to remain friends.

Ron, who has known Anna since childhood, might want to know if she is okay. Obviously, the flight from her hometown might mean she is under duress.

As far as the theft, it is water under the bridge. Consider the $2,200 a fee for 12 years of good service and a termination fee. But I would not give her a good recommendation for future employment.

Marissa S. Modesto, CA

Jim should definitely report Anna to the police. Jim is running a business and has clear evidence that she is in the wrong. It will make things awkward with Anna’s family for a little while, but if they are good enough friends, they will understand and move past the issue.

Lauren P. Philadelphia, PA

Why is it even a question whether or not he should report the theft? Trust is imperative in this business and there have to be consequences when that trust — and the law — is broken. Anna made the choice to ruin the family friendship, not Jim.

Marcus M. Midland, TX

If I were Jim, I would contact her parents first and see if they can provide a new contact number for her. I would also tell them exactly what is going on so they know about their daughter’s wrongful misdoings. If they don’t give Anna’s new contact info, then I would tell them that I had no choice but to get the police involved. And I would do that immediately. I get it: she’s a family friend, but she’s also a thief. I would give her and her family one chance to make this right, and if they hesitate or clam up, game on with the police. She’s done it once, she’ll do it again unless confronted and stopped.

Rex S. Houston, TX

The crime absolutely needs to be reported and prosecuted. Failure to prosecute a proven thief is likely only to produce further victims later on. I might try to find her through family or friends, only so far as to say there was concern for the sudden disappearance of an employee, but I would not give any hint of knowing about wrongdoing. Let law enforcement address those issues.

Ira K. Tallahassee, FL

It’s not worth chancing a relationship over $2,200 for a long-term employee/friend. Just let it go. It’s one of those non-reoccurring (hopefully) expenses we all have every so often.

William S. Franklin, VA

I would absolutely report it to the authorities because Anna was obviously stealing and trying to hide it from Ron and also trying to hang it on Lori. Right is right and wrong is wrong, however you slice it — and if it upsets her family, so be it. If they are protecting her, they are only enabling her in the long run! Whatever problem she has, she didn’t have to steal — end of story.

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If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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