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Company Profile: Dealing with Employee Theft at WDF

Everyone loves to discover new or exclusive products at great prices, particularly when traveling on holiday. The passport to vacation nirvana often begins with the spectacular tax- and duty-free airside emporiums at some of Europe’s biggest airports where products are tax-free for passengers traveling within the EU and duty-free for passengers flying outside the EU. Indeed, for many, duty-free shopping is part of the holiday experience. The purchases often, like photographs, carry distinct and lingering memories of the journey, whether it is a family holiday, a city break, or a honeymoon.

The word “duty” originates from the Anglo-Norman dueté, a derivative of the Old French deu or “owed,” which later evolved into débitus in Latin or “debt” in English. At a very early stage of its history in the developing ancient world, duties were levied on all exports and imports at Athens, the first so-called civilization, for purposes of public revenue.

Over time, air and seaports became associated with complex customs checking and a byzantine taxation system, which escaped the rigors of local duty collection by virtue of the fact that such zones were recognised as geographical and time anomalies in between specific jurisdictions. This loophole dates back to Shannon Airport in Ireland in the 1960s, when it becaame common practice that because people were simply passing through these “no-man’s-land” areas, they should be able to purchase items without paying the standard import duty—so long as they were in the process of leaving the country.

By custom, it is a virtual tax loophole that all governments concede, but that is not to suggest that everything that goes on airside is treated with legal impunity—far from it. Businesses operating in these legal twilight zones still suffer from the everyday human frailty, whether it is external theft or employee dishonesty or collusion resulting in huge losses for companies operating airside.

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A New Approach to Dealing with Employee Theft

World Duty Free, a Dufry company, has stores located in 21 airports across the UK, and these are examples of locations where the long arm of the law can still reach. And that arm just got longer in terms of dealing with employee theft and fraud.

World Duty Free (WDF) used to take a traditional approach to its staff investigations, but a shift in tactics—from the reactive and often adversarial interview technique to a more proactive, non-confrontational, conversational approach—has not only significantly improved clean up rates, but also reduced the number of cases of claims for unfair dismissal going to employment tribunals.

Under the stewardship of Joe Sanchez, loss prevention manager for WDF in the UK and North America, a four-strong loss prevention team were sent on an intensive Wicklander-Zulawski (WZ) non-confrontational interview-training program, which resulted in a 16 percent increase in admission rates in just three months.

What was previously a traditional question-and-answer interview with human resources taking verbatim contemporaneous notes was replaced with a smoother, more conversational process and what is referred to as the all-important, scene-setting, opening introductory statement.

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“It was critical to get this right because we needed to get our internal HR teams fully on board. The opening statement is part of the flow and the raison d’être of the whole WZ approach. For it to have to stop and start in order for notes to be taken, or for HR to catch up, would interrupt the process,” said Sanchez. “What we therefore agreed is that the opening will be consistent so that they do not need to take verbatim notes at this point, but only when the interview begins. This has worked well and has enhanced our process.”

The switch in approach has resulted in even the most seasoned fraudsters admitting to wrongdoing and, furthermore, zero unfair dismissal claims, resulting in greater efficiency in the LP team in terms of reduced downtime for staff to attend hearings.

WZ began life in the United States, but has been operational across the UK and Europe for almost ten years. With more than thirty years of experience from the military and law enforcement to the retail sectors, WZ begins from a simple premise—starting a conversation with a confrontation almost always results in an emotional reaction and denial by the subject.

“As a small team, the process has complemented what we already had in place. We cannot afford to carry out fishing expeditions or long interviews that go on for hours at a time. In that way, WZ has reinforced our own policy,” said Sanchez. “It has also enhanced our preparedness. It offers us a structure for getting ready for interviews that we lacked previously, and this has helped to reduce time and boost efficiency because we never deviate from the facts of a case. And this has further augmented our listening and observational skills.”

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The Efficiency of Cordiality

WZ believes that a more effective way to identify the truth is through a variety of non-confrontational techniques that allow the conversation to remain cordial without pushing the subject into an emotional or defensive state. The WZ-trained interviewer does not probe or question, but simply lays out a series of statements of fact—who they are and what they do—as a means of opening. This introductory statement opens up the opportunity for a series of non-verbal communications and observations assisting the interviewer and resulting, in most cases, in a full confession from those guilty of activities that have not even been alluded to at this stage of the conversation.

In fact, many such admissions are achieved in a short, twenty-minute exchange, saving hours of unnecessary denials and counter claims and often resulting in confessions from the subject to wrongdoing of a greater scale than what they were originally being interviewed for.

“It is all to do with the process and the consistency of approach and credibility,” said Sanchez, who has operated in both domestic and international profit protection roles for WDF. “It has allowed our investigators, who all come from a variety of different backgrounds, to reduce resistance and denials. The opening statement is very powerful, yet understated. We are simply explaining to the subject of the interview who we are and why we are here.

“Since the team have been trained by WZ, I have noticed how much smoother and natural the interviewing process has become as they grow in confidence. Some interviewees have even admitted their guilt within five minutes as any resistance simply melts away. This is because most people will admit to things when they realise that they have been caught. Having demonstrated the efficacy of the revised approach, I am delighted to say that they are fully on board because they realize that WZ in no way compromises the company position or affects any tribunal.

“Indeed, since we have been using WZ, we have had no one coming back to us threatening industrial tribunals, which we would not have had under the previous regime where we had an average of ten appeals for the fifty or so investigations that we average in a year. We are simply developing a sense of empathy, which means that their desire to fight or resist is automatically lower.”

A Non-taxing Duty

Softer benefits include no longer having to spend hours preparing for the interviews as investigators simply follow the process. Likewise, years of experienced service as an investigator are not essential to getting the desired result, and police officers dedicated to the respective airports and involved in subsequent criminal investigations have been complimentary of WDF’s approach to dealing with employee theft.

WDF may consider expanding its application outside of the UK and into Europe, and WZ EU training programs have taken place in Ireland, Poland, and Germany for many household-name retail brands.

WZ EU trainer Alan Grocott, himself a former head of LP for Next in the UK, said, “Joe’s experience at WDF is not unusual as many retailers return from the courses keen to put their new training into practice. For most, it is a game changer when they see resistance fall away with the power of the introductory statements without any shots fired in anger. Even the really awkward and belligerent protagonists realize when the game is up, as their own body language has betrayed them. After their admission, there is usually a sense of euphoric release as they are, in most cases, not seasoned criminals but simply good people who, for whatever reasons—gambling debts or addiction, for example—have made bad or poor choices. The fact that they have lost their jobs as a result is almost secondary to this sense of relief.”

If there is a moral to this story, it is this: lying is a more difficult journey for most individuals, and engagement and empathy are more time- and cost-effective tools to unlock the sense of honor that we all too often hide from ourselves and our peers. Interviewing can only be a cut and thrust and two-dimensional dance-off, while conversational discourse brings a more fluid and graceful choreography and a sense of moral imperative. Dishonesty is selfish and counter-intuitive and will always quickly reveal itself. Conversely, truth is ultimately a selfless act and a non-taxing duty.

This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2017 and updated January 9, 2018.

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