THE BLOG

Employee Fraud: Time to Stop Seeing the Funny Side

10/11/2014 10:23 GMT | Updated 09/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Fully one third of business failures in the United States now are the result of employee fraud, and there is no reason to assume the same is not true for the UK.

Yet there is still a tendency to view this theft as 'victimless', even when others lose their jobs through a company collapsing, deceived taxpayers or shareholders are left worse off, and trust is compromised within an organisation.

We need to take the issue of worker fraud more seriously, to stop treating 'white collar' crime as if it is any less serious than being burgled or somehow rare: 'Employee fraud' put into just the news section of Google produces about 28,000 results.

It is estimated that 85 per cent of all reported fraud is by employees, albeit on a spectrum from stationery theft to grander larcenies.

Perhaps the problem is that fraud often comes with distracting black comedy. Take the case of Chelmsford City Council 'Employee of the Year' David Archer, recently convicted of siphoning off more than £230,000 destined for children's play areas. Naturally enough, Mr Archer, a father of six and senior official, had also been chairman of the local 'crime and disorder partnership with the police. Truly, the raw ingredients for farce.

But that is still no excuse for a tendency for employee fraud either to be presented as the end result of personal misfortune, or as somehow a lesser amongst all the world's evils. It can after all ruin a lifetime of endeavour and trust.

Forensic accountants, of which I am one, specialise in rooting out fraud, and it is rising as our workload testifies. In my experience, the crime is never committed by the chaotic, disorganised employee, but invariably by the 'loyal hardworker who never takes a holiday.' They are often very junior or very senior, rarely in the more observed middle of organisations.

It can be avoided, too. But it requires a full dose of professional scepticism to be taken by senior managers before this can be relied upon. But the fact is that fraud is rarely very sophisticated and is usually not the result of some fiendish, thought through plan or web of intricacy. Usually, it is down to misplaced trust being exploited and then driven by blind greed.

So the good news is that it can be spotted early, as can likely perpetrators, but only by getting into the right mindset.

Step one is to not to take any employee references or paper qualifications on trust. In countless cases of financial fraud it soon becomes clear that deception covered many other areas, and usually starts with claimed awards and certificates.

Fraudsters in firms are often opportunistic, spotting and being tempted by a chance that usually comes from their being given autonomy over money. One of the best ways to avoid fraud is to ensure that more than one person has access to bank accounts, sales ledgers or petty cash.

Firms are also oddly reluctant to call in professionals to audit whether the systems they have in place to prevent fraud actually work, or even exist. This reticence is odd because they will routinely have auditors in to sort out their accounts.

They also often fail to keep paperwork and emails, which eventually help establish not only what has been happening but for how long.

Fraud often makes headlines, as a Google search shows, but it would make a lot fewer if management exhibited appropriate professional scepticism about the possible motivations of their employees, stood back, and asked more searching questions. Until they do so, expect to read about many more employees-of-the-year found rather wanting.