Asteya and the Attitude of Gratitude: Building a Strong Employee Awareness Program

EDITOR’S NOTE: The success of an employee awareness program at any company is dependent on matching the communication theme and substance to the company culture. This article is an in-depth look at the thought process for how one asset protection department developed a very unique approach to their employee awareness program within an equally unique corporate culture. It also includes an alternative approach to deviant behavior that runs counter to the traditional approach used by many loss prevention organizations.

lululemon athletica is a yoga-inspired athletic apparel company headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia. We operate two brands, 226 stores, and forty-four showrooms in Canada, the U.S., Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. Through these retail outlets we aim to create components for people to live long, healthy, and fun lives, and by doing so, keep people active and stress-free. Our product focuses on technical fabrics and functional designs, and we work with yogis and athletes in local communities for continuous research and product feedback.

As a culture, we are a group of people who seek to elevate the world from a place of mediocrity to greatness. We do this through conscious effort and clear purpose, understanding that people in the world reach a place of greatness through creating their ideal lives in living a life they love. Our aim is to provide tools for people to achieve that life. We also believe in the inherent goodness of people, and that great people attract other great people through the law of attraction. We celebrate gratitude. We believe in yoga.

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Our loss prevention philosophy is founded in the roots of Yoga, in the Sanskrit word “Asteya” (pronounced ah-STAY-ya), which translates from Sanskrit to “non-stealing.” While this concept can apply directly to merchandise in our stores, its broader and more powerful meaning deals with the way you relate to other people in your life. It is a daily practice. It is a way to being. It is a guiding alignment that all our decisions refer back to. But before getting into the details of how this works in a practical way, let’s take a step back and look at how we got here.

Where We Started

The asset protection department within lululemon began in a form that mirrored some of the basic approaches that many loss prevention departments use—theft prevention and shrink reduction through a combination of inventory result analysis, audits, internal and external theft deterrents, and a heavy policy and procedures framework. This approach was originally established and deployed at the corporate level with limited field resources and headcount. At the time we lacked budget, we were not fully plugged into the business strategy and decision-making process, and people had a misunderstanding of what we did.

The intent and tone of our original program contained a list of what to do, how to do it, and what would happen to you if you did something you weren’t supposed to do. But as we thought about this structure, the questions arose—what message does this send to the employee being trained? Are we trying to scare people? Does this message really speak to the majority of our people? To this newly hired employee, what is her initial impression of how the AP department feels about her? Are we assuming from the first day that she will steal if given the right opportunity? If so, what does that cost us…the AP department and the company…in our relationship with her? Do we build rapport or create alienation?

In reflection, we had a message that was geared toward the dishonest actions of a very small minority of our people, yet was being broadcast to all of our people company wide. It was a message that wasn’t always relevant. In our culture of entrepreneurial store managers, it was often ignored or
quickly dismissed.

Our first attempts at creating a new loss prevention employee awareness program at lululemon were met with varying degrees of success. We tried to tie the new employee awareness program more closely to our corporate culture by simply masking and reformatting our existing program and giving it a new name that literally included the word culture—the “Asset Protection Culture and Resource Guide.” We also partnered with a third-party solution provider to handle all investigations and audits. Our new approach was still heavily based on audit, policy and procedure, and it failed. It was still a message that was directed at those who might steal and, because this message was sent to everyone through our training, it treated everyone as that potential thief. At the end of the day we saw the traditional loss prevention norms, both philosophical and practical, were having an oil-and-water relationship within our organization. As an already small department within the company, we risked being further perceived as irrelevant to key business partners if we didn’t drastically adjust.

Our revised goal was to bridge the gap between what was the AP culture and what is the company culture. There needed to be shift, a complete disruption of what we held as “true facts” about how AP should work in a retail environment. We asked ourselves if we could create a message that spoke to all of our people. Instead of directing our employee awareness program at the relatively small population that is likely to steal, what if we created a message that engaged all of our employees and came from a place of encouragement? What if we tapped into the inherent goodness that is already in our people and our corporate culture? More importantly, do we have the confidence to give up seeking more control over our stores and people through policy and procedure? And what if we looked to lower shrink through analyzing and elevating the behavior of our people?

Through this reexamination, we rejected the idea that the best way to lower shrink was through control; the idea that enforcement was key. We rejected the idea that we were inevitably surrounded by people stealing from us. Instead, we embraced the fact that we work with incredible people and love our business partners. We believe that people are inherently good, and we treat them as such.

There is tremendous power in the idea that you’re in a relationship with people who live in honesty and are in the business of elevating the world around them. What all this comes down to is a focus on the behaviors that are driving individual action, both good and bad, rather than on the actions themselves. What if we can identify, coach, develop, and support situations that arise in the behavioral stage, rather than letting poor behavior progress to fruition and result in a potentially negative or dishonest action?

These questions and realizations were at the forefront of our minds as we developed the current AP strategy and employee awareness program at lululemon. In order to drive this message, to bring our company culture and our ideas around behavior together, our AP department searched through the roots of our business and the roots of yoga. We found a message in which we could believe. We found “Asteya” and adopted is as our company philosophy and theme for a culture of honesty and integrity.

What Is Asteya?

Within the practice of yoga, there is the concept of the “Eight Limbs,” or paths, to pursue a happy and balanced life. The Limbs give a framework for people to follow a tested structure for living a life you can love. One of those Limbs is known as the “Yamas,” or the moral restraints. Asteya is one of the five Yamas; again the literal translation from the Sanskrit language is “non-stealing” or “non-coveting.”

The connection from the concept of non-stealing to loss prevention seems simple and straight forward. We talk about Asteya because we don’t want our people to steal, thus causing shrink. But this is only a narrow interpretation of the concept, and it goes much farther than simply “don’t steal from the company.” Asteya is a way of being. It is a daily practice, and we always want to elevate ourselves and those around us and show people how to powerfully impact their lives.

We teach our stores that Asteya is a concept to find alignment with, not prescriptive rules or regulations on your actions. You want to set the idea of Asteya as an intention and then recognize when you’re out of character or out of integrity with that original intention and how it potentially impacts your behavior and decision making.

Thousands of years ago, the idea of non-stealing encompassed both tangible and non-tangible objects; all still things people have rights around. This concept could include someone’s time, someone’s joy, an idea that someone has, or something as simple as the space in a conversation for someone else to speak up. Asteya talks about refraining from taking something that was not freely given to us, and emphasizes manifesting material things through honest and respectful means (through the law of attraction). We learn through Asteya that everything we need in life is already within us. When we govern ourselves through the practice of Asteya, we will enhance our culture of honesty and integrity; thus naturally achieving our asset protection goals.

Our loss prevention philosophy is founded in the roots of Yoga, in the Sanskrit word “Asteya” (pronounced ah-STAY-ya), which translates from Sanskrit to “non-stealing.” While this concept can apply directly to merchandise in our stores, its broader and more powerful meaning deals with the way you relate to other people in your life.

Examples of Non-Stealing

Let’s examine some possible applications of Asteya beyond non-stealing of money and merchandise.

Consider this example of respecting people’s non-tangible objects. If you’re working on a project with a coworker, and you later claim an idea from that project as your idea, when it was actually the other person’s, we would say that your actions are out of integrity and alignment with Asteya. By “stealing” the credit the other person is due, you are failing to recognize what they have earned, and you are taking more than you have earned out of that relationship.

Another example may be illustrative of respecting what you have earned in your own life. Imagine that you’re in a yoga class, and in front of you there is someone performing a difficult inverted posture, balancing on one arm, no sweat, and she looks calm and serene. You have been practicing this same pose for weeks, yet you know that you can’t do that yourself, even after all of your effort. There are two ways you can react, internally, to what you’re experiencing. First, many people would approach it with a sense of frustration or entitlement. As in, “I’m so jealous right now. It’s not fair. I’ve been going to this class longer and have worked harder. That person just started and can already achieve that pose.” What if, instead, you approach it through a lens of Asteya and gratitude? You say to yourself, “I haven’t earned that pose yet. I need to accomplish X,Y, and Z in my own practice before I can properly achieve that pose, and when I do I will feel even more fulfilled because I have earned it on my own and through my effort.” In this second approach, you recognize that the reward is not the pose itself, but the effort and dedication that it took to get there.

In the first way of experiencing the example above, you would be out of alignment with the practice of Asteya by failing in two regards—you are not giving proper acknowledgement to what she has earned, and you are not taking responsibility in your own practice for what you haven’t earned. Only by accepting 100 percent responsibility for where you currently are—in class, in life, at work—and allowing others the recognition they deserve for where they are, can you begin to align with proper behavior. This example carries off the yoga mat as well, and can be applied to any work or personal life experience where we are in a place of judgment, particularly around the accomplishments of others.

The broader connection, or building on the concept, here is that once you realize what you currently have in your life is what you’ve earned, you realize that everything you need to accomplish anything you want is simply already within yourself (which connects to the further yoga teachings within the “Niyamas”).

By coming to this recognition of actual need versus perceived outside desires, you gain an understanding of how unnecessary it is to take anything at all from another person. If you imagine that everything you need to accomplish your goals you already have, but you also remember that you do need everything you have, then it follows that when you steal from another, you’re actually depriving them of their ability to accomplish their own goals. It’s not simply stealing what you’ve taken in the moment; it has a potential effect in the chain of life.

Asteya can also be expressed as sustainability in taking only that which you require, for if you take more than you require you are necessarily taking from someone else in a world with limited resources. An example could be looking at limited meeting room space in your corporate office. Do you find that people book recurring meetings when they might not always need a room, or maybe people forget to cancel meeting rooms when they cancel with the individuals? In a sense, they are stealing the ability for people to have a private and quiet workspace with their peers.

The further impact of this is immeasurable. Now that meeting space is not available, it either prevents work from getting done or pushes meetings into common space. Does that now serve as a distraction to those trying to work quietly at their desk? Does it create a new sense of frustration, or entitlement, for people who have to experience loudness due to a meeting now happening near their desk? What further negative actions from that frustrated employee could now result because of the failure to practice Asteya and respect the limited availability of meeting rooms in the first place? When you examine the more complicated costs of small decisions you make, you see why it’s so important to have integrity around the little things.

A challenge with an abstract concept like Asteya as part of an employee awareness program is keeping the ideas and motivations behind it active in our stores. There’s no direct measurable you can assign to judge performance or success. One way we’ve found success is by an enrolling period, where we discuss the background and the “whys” to the approach, and then follow-up conversations.

The concept is first outlined for our employees in their orientation period. Then, when our AP personnel visit stores, we emphasize this message in training sessions on the floor through small examples, or though experiments that help our people examine their actions and behaviors. By showing people how Asteya actively fits into the framework of their personal experience, we can encourage people to begin to use it as a guiding principle in their lives.

Once people are enrolled in what we’re trying to achieve, and see the benefits it brings to their life, you can expand the depth of their knowledge and curiosity by challenging them to think critically about applications of concepts in the work setting, rather than asking them to repeat procedural dogma.

We rejected the idea that the best way to lower shrink was through control; the idea that enforcement was key.We rejected the idea that we were inevitably surrounded by people stealing from us. Instead, we embraced the fact that we work with incredible people and love our business partners. We believe that people are inherently good, and we treat them as such.

A Philosophy vs. a Policy

While Asteya is our asset protection philosophy, it is not our asset protection policy. A policy is “signing the deposit slip” or “setting the alarm,” and those things exist in our department, but they are separate from the practice of Asteya. It’s also important that we, as a department, do not take a general set of policies, procedures, and guidelines that we develop, and then group those things under a yoga-sounding term. It’s the other way around—all of our actions must have their genesis in the concept of Asteya in order for it to be our authentic philosophy. We must teach and practice the concept of Asteya in the authentic meaning of the term, not use a fancy yoga term to bundle up otherwise mundane prescriptions.

To help make this distinction clear, we use the diagram shown on the next page in training. The idea is to present our main themes of AP culture within the framework of the employee awareness program—Asteya and gratitude, underlined with integrity, as working with, but not the same as the asset protection department in the company (associated with keys, locks, alarms, sensors). It is easy to collapse all of these concepts into one sentence and say something like, “Asset protection at lululemon is the practice of Asteya, which means we always have integrity with ourselves and live lives full of gratitude, thereby attracting other great people.”

The reality is that each of those four concepts—asset protection, gratitude, Asteya, and integrity, all operate in different ways, with different definitions, and if we combine them into one general lump of culture, we lose the power they have individually. Instead, we want our people to have an understanding of each as its own concept and having its own power, and then understand where each concept crosses over and supports another.

Working with the Inherent Goodness of People

We believe in the inherent goodness of people, and this guides our behavior toward people. So, let’s look at two ways to alter undesirable behavior in others—(one) punishing undesired behavior versus (two) celebrating a behavior that pulls in an opposite direction of the undesired behavior.

With the first approach, you are creating a fear of an action and an associated punishment. And while this can correct behavior in an individual instant, does it have a long-term effect? Also, consider the cost to the department when AP is issuing the punishment or correction. The department is associated with that punishment, which can create an adversarial relationship between the store operators and field AP team.

Consider the second alternative approach. What if we can remove negative behavior…everything from missing signatures on bank bags to internal theft…by simply recognizing great behavior and encouraging more of it? What kind of atmosphere does that create?

We know that it’s possible, and in addition to aligning with Asteya, we teach the “Attitude of Gratitude” to accomplish it.

While Asteya is our asset protection philosophy, it is not our asset protection policy. A policy is “signing the deposit slip” or “setting the alarm,” and those things exist in our department, but they are separate from the practice of Asteya. It’s also important that we, as a department, do not take a general set of policies, procedures, and guidelines that we develop, and then group those things under a yoga-sounding term.

The Attitude of Gratitude vs. Entitlement

In addition to our culture of Asetya, we examine at a behavioral level the impact of the positive emotion of gratitude versus the negative emotion of entitlement, and their respective impacts on the age-old industry challenge of stopping theft. Can reinforcing positive behavior replace “control” over employees or scare tactics? How can we talk to employees about theft in a way that excites them?

To stop theft through behavior you have to examine what is the core behavior inherent in the act of stealing and negate it. If you think about any sort of stealing—a kid stealing candy, a teenager stealing a DVD, an adult committing insurance fraud—all of these actions have entitlement at their core. In some way, each of these scenarios has a person who feels they deserve something they have not earned. Entitlement is at the core of theft behavior, and the acknowledgement of this is central to our employee awareness program and our training philosophy as a whole.

To reduce entitlement we can’t simply go around and yell at people to stop being entitled; that only serves to put people in a defensive mindset and builds animosity. If you want to get rid of entitlement, you need to establish a culture that holds an opposite emotion as a core value. That’s where gratitude comes in.

Gratitude is a celebration of what you have, not what you want. Gratitude is thankfulness for what is in your life and is a focus inward toward that which is present. Gratitude is abundance, wholeness. Gratitude is recognition of the fact that everything you currently have is exactly what you need to accomplish whatever it is you’re after. Gratitude is the absence of expectation.

You can only hold on to one emotion at a time. If you set your intention toward gratitude, it will pull you away from entitlement. It is impossible to live in the entitled mindset if you truly have decided that gratitude is a core value for yourself.

A dedication to a grateful life doesn’t mean you’ll never find yourself in a place of entitlement, and it is important to realize this. You don’t need to be afraid of entitlement; you simply need to be able to recognize when you are in that state. For example, is my anger with traffic because I feel entitled to having my own lane when everyone else has to get to work, too? The great thing about recognizing the state of entitlement is that through that recognition you pull yourself out from it. Part of the definition of entitlement is that you do not realize you’re acting entitled. If you recognize it, you’re out of it and can move back to your dedication to a grateful life.

Here’s the great thing about focusing an asset protection department around an employee awareness program that focuses on gratitude-related concepts—it’s fun, it’s inspirational. People genuinely enjoy setting aspirational personal goals and living a life that is full of gratitude. Need convincing? Imagine you’re working in a store or office with thirty other people. What does that environment look like if everyone is living in entitlement? Do you want to be there? Now, what does that same place look like if everyone is committed to gratitude? What else is now possible that wasn’t when everyone was living in entitlement?

We know entitlement and difficulties will naturally arise in people’s lives. Knowing that, our goal is to create an employee awareness program that features a culture of gratitude (which starts with the law of attraction and attracting inherently good people to the brand in the first place), so that when those negative feelings arise, we leverage the inherent goodness within our people and naturally offset the behavior before it turns into action. Think of a teeter-totter where entitlement is never strong enough to offset the gratitude, or a glass ceiling where as entitlement climbs, it bumps into the glass ceiling of gratitude and can no longer proceed, thus not transforming into negative or dishonest actions.

Behavior Is Proactive Theft Prevention

People who steal have to come up with an internal rationalization for why it is okay for them to steal. This rationalization is based in entitlement. Entitlement will show up as a behavior, or as an emotion in someone who is going to steal, long before they commit the crime. You can’t flip on an entitled mindset, steal something, and then turn it off. It is an emotion that lives deep inside and seeps out in small, but noticeable ways.

If you talk with a manager who has had an employee steal from them, one would bet that manager will be able to pinpoint where the dishonest employee acted from a place of entitlement long before the theft was discovered. Was it frustration? Was it anger? Was it a sense of deserving that manifested itself into many noticeable behavioral traits in the workplace?

Teaching our store managers to look for entitled behavior is an incredible tool in reducing internal theft, but you can’t do this because you want to prevent internal theft. To be effective, the employee awareness program has to come from a place of authentic interest in gratitude and what it can accomplish for people. From this place people will happily adopt it as a life stance, and when someone is in that grateful stance of life, entitled behavior in others becomes unacceptable and immediately apparent.

When these behaviors become apparent, ideally we can identify, support, and fix things in a behavioral place before they turn into action that has repercussion to both the individual and the company. Let’s say someone is consistently late to work. Many organizations might issue a written warning saying “don’t be late again or else [blank].”

Within the context of Asteya and the attitude of gratitude, we ask the question, “What is the behavioral reason why this person is arriving late?” Somewhere in their own rationalization they are making the internal decision that it is okay to be late over and over again. Do they have a sense of entitlement that says, “It’s only retail, so I can be late.” Or maybe “I stayed late yesterday and worked overtime when I wasn’t supposed to, so I’m going to come in late today.” Maybe its the frustration of “I didn’t get that promotion, so I’m going to show them and just come in when I feel like it.”

In any of these scenarios, the employee has created a real rationalization in their mind that says it’s okay to be late. At this behavioral point of inception, it is neither right nor wrong; it is real in the moment for that employee. The goal of our employee awareness program is for managers to identify when someone is out of their normal character. To identify when the behavior is off, and then seek to understand why. Why do they think this way? What can we do to help, support, and develop this situation to a better outcome, rather than have it potentially turn into a negative situation?

The same can be applied to external theft. The challenge in which we enroll our managers includes how do we spread gratitude to all of our guests? How do we create such a fun kitchen-party type feel in each store where it creates such positive individual attention and personal connection to the brand that guests would never want to steal from lululemon in the first place? Can we create this sense of gratitude for the brand in the majority of the guests and our communities because of what it offers to them in their personal lives, which is far more reaching than simply the clothes we sell?

A Consistent Way of Being

In the end the only way this employee awareness program will work is if it is consistent with what people are already inclined to believe, what they support in the lives of others, and something they are interested in learning more about. As trainers, we have to realize this, and act accordingly.

For us at lululemon, this whole process starts with what we call the “Law of Attraction.” The law of attraction isn’t a loss prevention concept, but a core belief of the company. It operates at every level of hiring, training, identifying business partners, and community involvement. With the law of attraction, we believe that great people attract other great people, and it is imperative that you actively pursue the goal of surrounding yourself with amazing people who inspire you to better yourself. Consider this—what does it look like if you don’t hire someone because she fits a position or a list of qualifications, but hire someone with an inherent characteristic that inspires you to greatness? This chain of practice is core to our business and creates the environment that allows our culture to thrive.

The development of ethical behavior as a business model starts with this law of attraction and flows through all subsequent employee awareness program, training and goal setting. It is a model of setting an intention in a positive direction and letting that intention guide all future actions. This allows the inherent goodness of our people to spill forth, and this is displayed every day through their thoughts and actions.

Asteya is a channel for this thought and action, reinforcement to an original intention. Asteya is a framework placed over the behavior our people already recognize as the proper course of action. Through the practice of Asteya, through its framework, we can naturally achieve our asset protection goals.

This article was first published in 2013 and updated in January 2016.

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