Preventing Embezzlement In Your Office

Lynn Homisak PRT

I generally don’t get twisted up about the many office troubles I see. I acknowledge them, analyze them and help fix them. What I have noticed, however, is that every so often, the topic of embezzlement resurfaces, typically after another victim comes forward to tell his or her story.

The comments are always dreadfully negative and the advice repetitious. On one side, there are doctors shouting victim, doctors betrayed and doctors feeling they can no longer trust their most loyal employees. On the other side are longtime staff who feel insulted, offended and targeted by the overall tone of the discussion.

Unfortunately, there continues to be “those” employees (not restricted to medical offices by the way) who feel “entitled” to something (e.g., funds, time) that they have no claim to. Sadly, the most loyal employees tend to be the biggest culprits. There are a lot of reasons why they do it and none of them are acceptable. It happened in our office and it happens to the best of doctors and in the best of practices.

Still, you should not assume that all staff are proven guilty from the few personal stories that surface. Doctors who have no problem pointing fingers at all staff collectively (and suddenly are willing to put their own staffs’ necks in the noose) need to dial it down. Remember, when you point fingers at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you. In other words, employers must realize that some of the accountability for why this is happening falls on their shoulders.

I have heard the saying that 10 percent of people will never steal, 10 percent will always steal and 80 percent will steal if they have opportunity. Accordingly, the problem we need to address is not just dishonest staff because look around. There are plenty of honest, trustworthy, conscientious staff just as there are honest and dishonest doctors. It’s unfair to automatically label every employee a criminal.

The real problem is a lack of systems coupled with poor management. Practices must have control policies, protocols, safeguards and enforcements that create and maintain an embezzlement-free environment. Sidestepping these because “it is arduous, costly, confusing or time consuming” and sitting back waiting and hoping something doesn’t go wrong is irresponsible. There are zero excuses for not developing and putting into place a simple proactive plan as a solid, preventative measure. Complacency is not a strategy.

Management experts continue to offer practical solutions and the embezzlement topic goes away until someone new is victimized. I am sorry for those who go through this, I really am. I know it is as much an emotional blow as it is a tangible financial hardship. That said, when I am called into a practice recovering from the shock of embezzlement and see their “no system” system in place, it is painfully obvious why “stuff” happens.

One of the immediate “red flags” is the “territorial” staff person/manager. These individuals are so blatantly overprotective of their work that they reject assistance from co-workers and at the same time send a stern message that no one should “touch my work” or cover for them when they are out. Not surprisingly, they are also the only ones handling money. Doctors choose to ignore these signs and tell me, “Oh, that’s just how they are. They are very fussy about their work.”

Some doctors think an alternative solution to these viral accusations is not to delegate, to be “safe” and assume all the tasks themselves. Forget that that is totally inefficient. Why bother hiring someone at all if you have ongoing trust issues? Instead, why not make the necessary changes to replace your failed systems with successful ones?

To the staff, I say do your job with ethical professionalism. You are not entitled to take what you want, regardless of seniority, pay or position. If you have a problem with your job or your wages and feel you deserve more, have that conversation with your doctor.

I am often reminded of the story of The Kite Runner, a book my daughter suggested I read. In the book, the main character Amir got a lesson from his father.

"Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft ... When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness ... There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir."

Let’s do what needs to be done to create practices that offer less opportunity to cast blame and more that strive to build healthy doctor-staff relationships. Need help? Call me.

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