6 EMS workplace theft and loss prevention tips

A policy on employee personal use of company disposable supplies is an important initial step to theft prevention


Just about everyone has done it — pilfering a few office supplies from work. But how far can we, or should we, be allowed to push the envelope?

When it comes to your employer’s office supplies or other items, what right (if any) should employees have to take items home? Where can the line in the sand be drawn? Is there a policy in place, or should there be one? Is it not only an employment law issue, but also a moral one?

Consider these scenarios:

  1. Your son calls you, needing a folder for school. Instead of stopping at the nearest office supply store on the way home, you go to the supply closet at work to retrieve a lone folder. "What harm could one folder cause," you ask?
  2. Your wife calls, asking if you remembered to mail a bill. You had not, and quickly write the check and plan to drop the bill in the outgoing mail. You have no stamps, so you decide to use the postage meter at the office. One 50 cent stamp will not break the bank, will it?
  3. Your daughter calls. Her epi-pen has expired and has a field trip away from school the next day. You want to make sure she is safe and remove a spare epi-pen from the rig. It’s easier than trying to call the allergist or pediatrician, get a new prescription, call it into the pharmacist and stop to pick it up on the way home, right?

In the examples above, there may or not be a policy governing the use of office supplies or equipment. But, perhaps there shouldn’t have to be. It’s stealing — whether it’s a 35 cent folder or a $200 epi-pen.

Despite it being theft, at what point are we all, as humans, willing to turn a blind eye, and see it as morally acceptable? At what point does it go too far or cross the line between an employee benefit (access to certain items as a perk) and committing a crime? Are certain things acceptable to "take" while others not?

Earlier this year, an ambulance company employee was charged with taking three bottles of water and a container of germicidal wipes (valued at $50) from work and placing them into his personal vehicle. Security camera footage and eyewitness accounts helped lead to the charges.

We don’t know all of the details (and perhaps never will). We don’t know whether a policy was in place (or will be in light of this occurrence). Nonetheless, is the theft acceptable employee behavior?

Presumably, the container of wipes was the bulk of the cost here, and these wipes are specifically designed and used for cleaning the ambulance vehicles and equipment. Taking an item of this nature, clearly intended for a specific purpose to the ambulance service as a whole (much like the epi-pen in the example above) is inexcusable.

But what about the three water bottles? Perhaps an argument can be made that this is allowed. Who are these bottles typically purchased for — the employees, the patients, or are they distributed to the community during events, or on hot summer days? If the water is available for staff while in the office or the station is there a difference between drinking one’s fair share of water while physically in the station versus taking a few drinks to go?

Furthermore, in the three examples above, as well as the employee taking the water bottles and wipes, there was an element of deceit or underhandedness. There is no mention of simply asking if it would be ok to take, borrow or use the items in question. Instead, the scenarios all involved being sneaky — taking something without asking.

"Hey boss, can I take some water, (or pay for stamps, or the folder, or the wipes) and pay back the company?” 

Or, "Chief, what is the internal policy on taking, buying and borrowing office supplies or equipment?"

Simply asking could have prevented a huge problem. Instead, being sneaky was likely why the water bottle thief was reported to the police by the ambulance chief and ultimately charged with theft and receipt of stolen property.

From the employee side, the lesson from the water bottle theft is clear; know the guidelines and/or ask permission before surreptitiously taking something will make a world of difference. 

Theft and loss prevention tips
From the management side, though, these types of events can be handled in a variety of ways.  

1. Have a policy in place
Advise employees as to what can and can’t be done — even if obvious — to help set the tone. Make it clear that, for example water bottles can be removed but wipes cannot. Create the moral compass through policy.

2. Rely on others
Theft of property can be considered a compliance breach, reportable through typical compliance channels, such as a hotline. Reporting issues like this can be part of the overall compliance program. Failure to report breaches could be just as serious as the initial theft itself. Management cannot be everywhere at all times. Having security cameras or relying on other employees to report suspicious behavior can be helpful.

3. Talk it out
If no policy is in place, approach the thief first, instead of taking matters directly to the police, as a preliminary option. Why get the police involved if the matter could be handled internally? It’s possible there is a logical explanation for the disappearing supplies or that the pilfered supplies will eventually be replaced.

4. Lead by example
Just because you may be the chief, or owner, or CEO of the company doesn’t give you the right to take home equipment or supplies more than the next person. If you don’t want your employees taking things home then you shouldn’t be doing it either.

5. Set limits
If certain things are there for employee use, such as snacks, water, or supplies for documentation or community education, make it clear as to the rules and expectations concerning those items before claiming someone did something wrong. As with the water bottles above, is there really a difference between allowing the employee to guzzle three water bottles at work, as opposed to taking the water with him and drinking them in the car?

6. Inventory controls
Not all supplies are created equal. There is a vast difference among the $200 epi-pen, $50 can of germicidal wipes and a 35-cent folder. Some agency owned supplies, because of their high-value and regulatory requirements, need tighter storage and distribution controls. Certain items may be perfectly acceptable to take, as a perk of employment. However, other items, based on price or severity, such as narcotics or other drugs, must be off-limits. Employee theft of narcotics is a larger issue to tackle on another day, but drug box access must be limited to only those who need access, be carefully monitored, and be periodically tracked to ensure there is no evidence of theft or misappropriate. Using drug-waste charts and being able to compare waste with actual patient administration on the corresponding PCR can help track inventory of drugs.

Bottom line, having a policy or at least a guideline, can help prevent some headaches and give employees direction as to what may be acceptable behavior and what may not be appropriate. 

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