Editors Note: As we review some of LP Magazine’s top stories of 2015, this story should serve as an important reminder to every loss prevention professional—whether working as a loss prevention manager in a store or serving as a leader in the department—of the importance and the responsibility to treat everyone with appropriate dignity and respect. Professional conduct is a core competency of loss prevention leadership and is a fundamental expectation of every member of the loss prevention community.
There are very few of us today that haven’t been exposed in some way to the concept of bullying. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we have certainly seen or witnessed countless acts of aggressive cowardice by those that seem to feel that they have some right mistreat others. We often think about this in terms of youth harassed at school or on a playground, but it can happen in any environment at any age. It can happen in the workplace. And unfortunately it can—and does make its way into retail loss prevention as well. Occasionally, with tragic results.
Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. Such reprehensible behavior is often repeated and habitual. In recent years, there have been countless news stories in the US and across the globe that have drawn attention to the connection between bullying and suicide. Tragically, there is a strong link, with bully victims between 2 and 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.
So how does this make its way into retail loss prevention?
Walk of Shame?
Employed by a neighborhood retailer, Graham Gentles arrived early for work one
morning and was met at the entrance by police and store loss prevention. According to reports police officers “grabbed” him, emptied his pockets, pulled off his hat, and handcuffed him at the direction of store management. He was taken to an office where he was questioned, then allegedly paraded through the store handcuffed in front of coworkers and store customers, placed in a patrol car, and moved to the local police department as part of what has been commonly called “the walk of shame” by store employees. According to news reports, employees have stated that this alleged “walk of shame” occurs on a regular basis when employees are involved in employee theft or other loss prevention incidents at the store.
Gentles, who had Asperger’s Syndrome, was “shocked, confused and mortified” at being handcuffed and paraded through the store. He “had no idea why he was being arrested,” according to reports. “The only thing he said to me at that moment was, ‘Mom, this is the worst day of my life,'” claims his mother, Virginia Gentles. Three days after being terminated, he jumped to his death from the roof of a hotel.
Gentles was never charged with a crime, but he was terminated. Did he break policy, or was he involved in employee theft or some other dishonest act? Does it matter? Was there any reason to submit this young man to the type of humiliation that he faced? Or was this treatment simply intended to use force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others? Was it simply bullying? Who should be ashamed?
His mother is suing the retailer and two managers at the store for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and wrongful death.
For our purposes, the specific retailer isn’t the matter in question. There will not be any situation where a “walk of shame” appears in a policy or practice for any loss prevention program or by any retail organization, nor will it have been condoned in any way by company leadership. It is certainly not by any means an industry best practice. If it occurred as described, this is much more likely the actions of a few individuals that have taken it upon themselves to “send a message” about what they perceive as just behavior based on their view of employee theft and punishment. Most of us that have been around retail loss prevention have seen or heard of this type of behavior before. But it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. In fact, it goes against the very fiber of the loss prevention profession. Our role is to reduce losses and enhance company profits. It’s not to humiliate and pass judgment. It’s not to bully or embarrass. Ever.
Reaching Across the Pond
Claiming that she was unable to afford a leather jacket for a rock-themed night with friends, Elizabeth Outram was apprehended for switching price tags at an East London store in the United Kingdom and subsequently charged with retail fraud.
According to reports, the incident was captured by a TV production company who were filming in the shop for a reality show. The television crew caught the moment on camera, with the woman being stopped by loss prevention after she had attempted to buy the jacket.
“When she was taken into the back room and questioned by loss prevention they were filming her,” Claimed Miss Outram’s sister Alexandra at a recent inquiry. “She said ‘You can’t film me’ and they said ‘We can’. She said she was ill but they did not call her (caregiver)—me.”
According to her sister, the berating didn’t end there.
“They hounded her, kept sending her messages telling her they could use it and they were going to,” she said. “She told them she was receiving psychiatric treatment and she wasn’t well, but it was just ignored. She told me that she thought her life was over. She was so embarrassed…”
An inquest would later detail that Elizabeth Outram dreaded the threat of being exposed on national television for her involvement in the alleged retail fraud incident. She first attempted suicide the day she was due in court, overdosing on antidepressants. A month later she took her own life, hanging herself at her home after a night with friends celebrating her 30th birthday.
Clearly this was a troubled young woman. Most definitely, she made a poor decision with the leather jacket. But there is very little doubt that her final decision was directly influenced by the threats and intimidation that occurred following the detention. This went far beyond playing out the incident in the court of public opinion. She was hounded and harassed, bullied to the point that she felt that ending her own life was more bearable than the taunting and humiliation she was facing.
Sometimes there are plenty of bad decisions to go around. Sometimes those bad decisions play out in extreme ways. Could this have been avoided? More importantly, why are we in a situation where that question needs to be answered?
What Judgment Means in Loss Prevention
Every year shoplifting incidents, employee theft, retail fraud, and other related loss prevention incidents wreak havoc on our businesses, costing retailers billions of dollars. It is a serious problem that costs all of us in countless ways, and has directly contributed to the demise of many companies. This legitimizes the need for a loss prevention program. It supports our policies, practices and initiatives. However, it does not give anyone the right to take overt steps to exploit or humiliate another human being for any reason.
We all have our own opinions of right and wrong. We may not like or personally accept the reasons put forward by those involved in employee theft incidents, shoplifting, and other related acts. Yet we have a professional obligation to treat everyone with a degree of dignity and respect. We have a responsibility to protect the profits of our companies thoughtfully, sensibly, respectfully, and with appropriate discretion.
I have been directly involved in writing loss prevention policy documents for many different companies, and have reviewed countless others. But the only time that you will hear the word “judgment” used in these documents is when stating that we are expected to “exercise good judgment” in our actions and decisions. This isn’t a “cast the first stone” reference, but rather a message of courtesy, dignity, and respect. What is your role? What is your mission? What is your responsibility? For those involved in these events, they either didn’t ask the questions, didn’t know the answers, or don’t belong in the loss prevention profession.