Some Retail Security Agents Think Your Way of Managing Is Unfair

retail security agent performance

Recently, on an employment message board, a retail security loss prevention officer for a national department store chain questioned how his company measures his performance. “You are expected to meet a quota every week,” he wrote. “This doesn’t include run outs, and it does not include deterred cases. To me, this does not seem productive for LP officers or supervisors, as you can get 10 deterrences one week and no cases in which the subject actually proceeded to walk about with merchandise.”

His opinion? “Very backward if you ask me, and an outdated way of managing loss prevention officers.”

Objective performance measures are an indispensable security management tool, but checks and balances are necessary to prevent numbers from hijacking a thoughtful retail security strategy. Designed to offer insight, numbers—when relied upon too heavily—can sometimes do the exact opposite, painting a distorted picture. Even worse, if performance countermeasures aren’t put in place, it’s possible for them to incentivize unethical behavior among staff.

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Examples from Law Enforcement

There are several historical examples from law enforcement, such as allegations in lawsuits against the New York Police Department (NYPD) that highlight the potentially corrupting influence of numbers. A police officer with the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn made several audio recordings in which supervisors seemed to encourage officers to issue “ghost summons” (citations for phantom crimes) to meet individual performance expectations and, collectively, to hit desired targets for the precinct by higher ups. Some officers alleged they had received pressure to downgrade or not write up reports of serious crimes to improve overall crime statistics. In one alleged example, an officer refused to take a stolen car report from an individual with a criminal history, telling him instead, “maybe Karma took your car.”

The NYPD never sanctioned quotas nor the misclassification of crimes—it’s against the law, in fact—but numbers were at the foundation of its process for tracking performance and encouraging accountability. Its data collection system was credited with driving down crime—and duplicated by police in other jurisdictions—but critics contend that it devolved into a fight against numbers rather than crime. When historical numbers of citations and criminal offenses create standards for performance for individual officers and precincts, they create unhealthy incentives, warn critics.

Performance Pressure Inside Retail Security Departments

Undesirable pressure can also build inside retail security departments. Top management wants tangible evidence that the asset protection department is reducing monetary loss from incidents and crime, and supervisors insist that individual officers hit activity targets, but measuring investigators solely by their rate of admissions and case count, for example, can create conflicts with company ethical standards. If an investigator’s performance and pay depends on getting confessions, is it surprising that some officers might lie to suspects and take other ethical shortcuts to get it?

One loss prevention manager shared how numbers distorted his retail security department’s strategy. “We had such huge pressure on us to make our internal case count numbers that some of my coworkers would plant merchandise in the stockroom and see who they could catch just to up their performance numbers.”

The issue can also become problematic in court cases. In a lawsuit several years ago, in which a shopper was awarded $500,000 for injuries he sustained while helping a store officer restrain a shoplifting suspect, attorneys highlighted the apparent conflict between the store’s safety policy requiring team apprehensions and the fact that it used the “number of shoplifting arrests” as a performance measure. The appeals court noted that in the retail security officer’s performance review, he was told he “need[s] to increase [his] external apprehensions.” The security officer testified during trial that it was his perception that his company had a quota of a certain number of apprehensions that he needed to make to receive a good score on his review.

The store’s chief of security explained that the company did not use quotas but acknowledged that level of apprehensions “was definitely a measurement of performance, which is why it’s named the key performance measure.” Although it’s unknown whether the issue materially impacted the jury in its verdict against the store, jurors surely considered the fact that the retail security officer was under pressure to make apprehensions but was the only officer on duty—and thus unable to adhere to the company’s policy requiring team apprehensions.

Industrywide, in-store apprehensions have declined and the pressure to make them has certainly eased. Retailers have become sensitive to safety risks and racial discrimination claims, and many have adopted policies of not pursuing thieves and rely instead on technology to deter theft. But while LP departments disavow the use of quotas for store agent stops, retail message boards show that, in practice, many today still feel judged on the numbers.

There are other examples of unintended consequences from the use of incentives.

Some researchers studied the use of guard tour systems, for example, and concluded that they can encourage officers to go on a mindless scavenger hunt as they collect visits to specified checkpoints, rather than conduct a thoughtful security patrol. Reporting security gaps is another area of potential problems. If the discovery and reporting of a security vulnerability is treated as a point of failure—and especially if individuals are punished as a result—it can cause people to not report problems and to conduct superficial security audits.

The Need for Checks and Balances

Retail security departments must perform a balancing act. A measurement such as the number of apprehensions is easy to collect and trend and provides useful information, but because it and other measures of work quantity are not so easy to collect, they can become weighted more heavily, resulting in their being over-emphasized. Performance systems should strive to balance measures of quantity with qualitative measures.

In the case of investigators, retailers have a legitimate need to manage and encourage their productivity but should not encourage them to obtain admissions at any cost. So, a balanced performance measure process might include admissions and case load but should equally stress the quality and completeness of case preparation, interviews, and investigative notes.

It is more challenging to develop performance measures of work quality, and it is more difficult for some retail security positions than others. One strategy is to ask individuals for whom a security service is performed questions about how well the issue was handled:

  • Was the issue handled promptly?
  • Was the attitude of the responding officer helpful?
  • Were all your questions and concerns addressed completely?

For some security duties it may be possible to auto-generate a short email survey to solicit feedback from employees who interact with the asset protection or security team.

Knowing that these qualitative aspects of service are being judged—in addition to the number of services performed—creates positive incentives for officers to be polite, answer questions completely, and maintain a helpful attitude. If all interactions are routinely rated in this manner, a deep reservoir of data about officers’ quality of work emerges.

Suggestions from Retail Security Experts

More broadly, security consultants warn that what is important cannot always be measured and what can be measured is not necessarily important. Consequently, frequent interaction with senior management—rather than monthly or yearly departmental reports—is likely the best way for company leaders to recognize the value of the LP department. Continually angle for as much face time with senior leaders as possible, experts say, rather than letting figures and numbers do all the department’s talking. Numeric measures tell an important part of the retail security story, but they typically don’t offer the context or nuance that senior management requires to understand the risks the company faces and what is being done to protect it.

In identifying The Perils of Performance Measurement, Author Olivier Serrat, who heads the Knowledge Management Center at the Asian Development Bank, says it is important to review performance measures for the possibility that they are creating unhealthy incentives, and advises any department leader to:

  • Clarify your theoretical link between target and mission: define—for yourself, at least—how the model for individual performance targets will help accomplish the broader mission.
  • Check for distortions and mission accomplishment: verify that retail security professionals are achieving their targets in a way that furthers the mission, and not in a way that fails to help or undermines this effort.
  • Analyze many and various indicators: examine many forms of data—both quantitative and qualitative—to learn how your retail security staff and department can improve.

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