It didn’t take a particularly acute forensic mind to realise something was amiss at the factory. Thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment had gone missing over the course of months and the finger of blame was pointing at a group of employees who were suspected of loading it onto lorries to sell it on.
CCTV evidence was inconclusive and the company’s owners were increasingly frantic. It was an unusual set of circumstances, but not without precedent. Many businesses across the UK will have experienced theft, some of it involving employees.
For Nicole Reid (pictured), it was time to think laterally. The managing director of private investigators Corporate Investigations sent in an operative under deep cover. Posing as a new employee, they went through an induction, worked shifts and gradually began to gain the trust of their colleagues.
“We build relationships,” says Reid. “Then they start saying things and you get more out of them.” Before long, a trap had been set. The new starter suggested they might be interested in moving some products on the cheap. Soon, they were in on the scam and had collected enough evidence to prove what was going on.
If the episode sounds sufficiently complex for a television drama – or, indeed, the sort of office espionage and skulduggery portrayed in the Matt Damon film The Informant! – it’s bread and butter work for Reid. Hers is one of at least 20 serious players in the British corporate investigations market, but there are dozens more solo operators or wannabe detectives willing to assist if you suspect an employee is breaking the law, need to prove (or disprove) a serious allegation or simply fear all isn’t well inside your organisation. It is a lucrative and growing business that reflects the increasing complexity of modern corporate life, the importance of data and intellectual property to business value and, perhaps, the breakdown of trust between employees and leaders in some organisations.
Most businesses would never consider the need for a private eye. But in the right circumstances, Reid insists it can be a discreet and cost-effective way to solve a problem. “We’re just like any other business consultant,” she argues, as she escorts People Management round her offices. And she insists the propriety of her people and processes is paramount. Her operatives are all former military or police professionals and she undertakes a strict checklist before taking on a case. Who is the client? Why do they want the investigation? Is it ethical? Is there a less intrusive way to investigate? And what are the possible consequences if they do or don’t carry out an investigation?
“Nine times out of 10 the reason employers call us is that they’ve got suspicions,” says Reid. “Someone has seen or heard something, or there’s evidence to suggest someone is operating another business, for example.”
The allegations in question can range from theft of goods or data to fraud or employees stealing clients or other sensitive information. Only relatively rarely does the investigation require classic surveillance of the kind popularised in detective dramas, but when it does the results can be spectacular.
Reid talks about a case where an employee was on long-term sick leave with her arm in a sling. “She said she couldn’t come to work, she couldn’t drive, anything like that.” Long lens cameras were trailed on her as she went about her business – driving, shopping and carrying heavy loads. She was eventually confronted with the evidence of her duplicity: “Obviously, she didn’t really have anything to say.”
In a similar case, a client that operated multiple locations suspected some employees were not at work when they said they were. Workers had tracking devices fitted on their phones but four of them had found a way round the issue: the first pair would collect the mobiles of their two colleagues and take them to work to appear they had put in a shift, with the favour being returned the following day.
A lot of the time, Reid says she wonders how anyone could think they would get away with their malfeasance. Internet use is a particular giveaway, whether that means compromising photos on social media or stolen goods up for sale on online marketplaces. “It’s so easy to sell something. You can do it in a few minutes. And people don’t think they’ll get caught. But we’ve got the batch numbers or other information so we can quickly prove it belongs to our client.”
But the biggest risk, she believes, comes from more senior employees: “They can get away with it. You wouldn’t question your managing director on where they’re going or why they’re leaving at a certain time.
“We had a client who had paid thousands of pounds for a director to go to overseas trade shows. He never did any follow-ups. He also kept disappearing during working hours, but because he was so high up no one was questioning him and he was free to come and go as he pleased. He has probably taken those contacts [gathered from the trade shows] and set up a new business.”
In many ways, tales like this paint a dispiriting picture of British workplaces and suggest we have forfeited trust, consent and conversation in favour of intensive and intrusive monitoring. A TUC survey in 2018 found that 56 per cent of employees believed they were already subject to some sort of surveillance; employment lawyers said this was almost certainly an underestimate.
Research firm Gartner claims the majority of larger businesses are now using what it calls ‘non-traditional’ surveillance methods such as computer monitoring software and movement trackers. The newest trend is for real-time surveillance of workplace instant messaging software or internal social media systems. The idea is to immediately act on any evidence of bullying and harassment, as well as picking up subtler signs of fraud or other wrongdoing. The effect, claim campaigners, can be to impinge on individual freedom; just what level of surveillance is proportionate and justified is subject to revision based on case law and precedent, an area that is ever-evolving.
The real danger is that by monitoring people too obtrusively we erode their trust and set them on an adversarial path where, ironically, they are more likely to cheat their employer. As Ed Houghton, the CIPD’s head of research, puts it: “Workplace surveillance should never be a sticking plaster or substitute for effective people management practices.”
When you are dealing with determined and systematic attempts to defraud, however, there may be no choice but to turn to the professionals. John Wallace, managing director of law firm Ridgemont, says fraudulent employees often keep “meticulous spreadsheets” of their theft. And he believes the most important thing employers can do when they have suspicions of wrongdoing is to initially stay quiet: “If you’re going to go in under cover of night [to find proof] you don’t want anyone to know about it. You’ve got to preserve the evidence and put measures in place as soon as possible so it doesn’t happen again.”
There are legal parameters to observe. Richard Peachey, HR consultant at conflict management specialists CMP, points out that the Human Rights Act guarantees employees’ privacy: “There has to be some sort of calculation to say the rights of the individual are either not at risk [in an investigation] or the risk to the organisation is greater.”
There are strict rules around data collection and employers must have the right contractual terms in place. And Peachey advises caution over understanding the full context of the evidence gathered rather than relying on individual photos, recordings or other pieces of evidence. There could be a broader context to a CCTV image, for example, which hasn’t been captured: “The weight of evidence and how you apportion that weight is a very important conversation.”
It all takes HR professionals into an area they’d often rather not contemplate, and it’s worth stressing that formal investigation of employees remains the exception rather than the rule. Most grievances are resolved informally and many accusations of fraud or deceit turn out to be misunderstandings. For everything else, however, it’s reassuring to know there’s someone looking out for you.