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How to Expand Admissions in Employee Theft Cases

Dear Wicklander-Zulawski Europe:

I was interviewing an internal fraud subject recently for a known stock theft and had an issue when trying to get information on additional incidents from her. I only had the one incident on video but knew the subject had committed other offenses over the past few months, including both cash and product theft. I could not get her to tell the truth. At one point, the subject admitted that she had “stolen other items but couldn’t remember what they were.” I just could not get her to open up about anything other than the videotaped incident (which occurred the same day of the interview). We ended up proceeding with what we had, but my question is, what could I have done to overcome her resistance and obtain the additional information?

Thank you,
John Smith
Profit Protection Manager

John, your question addresses a common problem among loss prevention managers around the globe when it comes to employee theft cases. After conducting a thorough investigation, the LP manager is often able to get admissions from the associate only relating to what was known by investigators prior to the interview.

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You are correct in the assumption that the associate was likely involved in more theft activity than your employee investigation established. It is rare for an associate to be caught the first time they engage in dishonest behavior. When a person is caught the very first time they steal, it is likely they have been involved in a pattern of theft activity at other jobs and returned to this pattern at your company.

How to Gather Information in Employee Theft Cases

There are a number of issues we need to consider when explaining the reasons why you are having difficulties expanding admissions with dishonest associates. While your note does not detail how the interview with the associate was conducted, we will attempt to make some assumptions that may have contributed to your difficulty.

Consider this: were you, as the interviewer, too needy in your desire to obtain the additional confession?

There has to be the impression the interviewer does not need the information and can walk away from the encounter.

The acknowledgement and admission of additional incidents is really for the benefit of the subject, allowing them a chance to express their remorse and explain their actions. If the interviewer expresses too much interest in the subject’s admission, suspicion is aroused, and the individual’s resistance rises as their trust waivers resulting in limited information.

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People generally confess because they believe they have been caught, either as a result of what the interviewer says or the interview’s proximity to a recent incident. The timing of your interview in relation to the most recently committed theft likely indicated to the associate you were aware of the incident occurring earlier in the day. Since the associate believed they had been caught in that instance, they acknowledged it first, limiting further acknowledgment of other incidents.

Additionally, if you used a direct statement focused on the last theft, you have indirectly indicated what you knew diminishing further information. The direct statement of guilt also sets the interviewer as an opponent, limiting trust, rapport, and additional admissions.

Furthermore, if the interviewer’s general attitude was rude or condescending this could also contribute to a lack of cooperation from the individual.

These may contribute to several additional problems. First, if the interviewer focuses on this last instance, it will likely increase the individual’s resistance to giving additional admissions because they believe those are still undiscovered.

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Second, the interviewer has now lost the ability to absolutely determine if the associate is being forthright because they have given up what is known in the investigation. Now, if the associate says, “That is the only time I have stolen,” the interviewer has no effective way of knowing in absolute terms if the individual is being truthful.

In one research study, it was determined investigators were able to determine deception at an accuracy rate of 85 percent in situations where they were able to withhold evidence from the suspect to compare against the story or admissions they were obtaining. One of the most common problems we see, in both the public and private sectors, is the investigators’ presentation of evidence early in the interview. Even though the evidence may be powerful, the subject is still physically and psychologically strong, allowing them to withstand what is known. However, evidence used later in the interview has a greater impact in obtaining a first admission or encouraging a dishonest associate to give fuller and more accurate admissions.

Third, if the interviewer, while attempting to develop information, claims evidence or knowledge of information the subject knows or suspects is wrong, they will reduce their cooperation believing they are being deceived to by the interviewer.

Another common problem that causes limited information in employee theft cases is the type of question used by the interviewer. If the interviewer asked an assumptive question eliciting the most recent time the associate stole from the organization, they have effectively given up the investigation’s only real piece of evidence. Instead, the interviewer should have asked, “When was the very first time you took money/product from the company?” The “first time” question protects the evidence available and conceals what is known about the subject’s activities while creating an opportunity to expand the admission.

Sometimes an associate who is interviewed the same day they have stolen will offer an immediate admission to that incident; after all, they’ve been caught. The timing of the interview along with the proximity of the theft allows the associate to make a leap of logic that only their last dishonest act has been discovered and placates the interview, hoping the interviewer will accept it and go away.

If an associate makes an admission to what is known early in the interview, the interviewer should avoid detailed questioning about the topic. The interviewer should acknowledge the admission but immediately focus on earlier incidents as their primary area of enquiry. A simple, “Yes, of course, but we really need to start at the beginning, not at the end.”

Another powerful contributing factor to small admissions is not rationalizing with the subject. The interviewer’s failure to rationalize the associate’s dishonest behavior does not allow them to save face in light of the investigation. Sometimes loss prevention managers will simply attempt to obtain the first admission using evidence in hopes of shortening the process. This does often result in an initial admission to what is known but prolongs the development process or significantly limits additional information coming forward. Forgetting to use rationalization in an interview asks the subject to admit to stealing and being a bad person, neither of which does anything to support the individual’s self-image.

The rationalization process allows the individual to save face, minimizing the seriousness of what they have done, while focusing their attention on the resolution of the problem rather than the consequences of their actions. Rationalizing by the interviewer also continues the rapport process and generally removes the interviewer from the role as an opponent, creating a cooperative and collaborative environment to develop the admission.

Problems developing additional information often originate early in the interview with the symptoms only appearing much later. We suggest looking at how the interviewer approaches the interview and what is said since it is the interviewer who is the common denominator in all the encounters. Executing a well-planned strategy to the interview is just as important as a thorough investigation.

Good luck, John, and everyone out there in pursuit of the truth and full disclosure from your subject during an investigative interview.

This post was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2018 and was updated in September of 2020.

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