how to respond to an anonymous note that says a temp is stealing

A reader writes:

Recently at my office I have become “in charge” of the office purchase card, essentially the corporate card for in-office expenses such as paper, ink, coffee, etc. We lost the person who previously held the card and hired a temp in his place, and company policy is that a full-time employee must be the card-holder.

Every month, I review the previous month’s receipts – all receipts and purchases are cleared by the most senior person in our office and I review the receipts compared to the bill to make sure everything is on the up and up. That said, I do not actually sit and make the purchases for office supplies (I have a completely unrelated job and simply cannot be the office manager AND do my own work).

Recently, we began getting anonymous emails from someone within the office accusing the temp of making unauthorized purchases on the card. All receipts and all bills go through both myself and the senior person in the office, and nothing has been amiss. The anonymous email accused the temp of not only purchasing several personal items, but doctoring receipts before they got to us.

Unless the receipts were doctored, there have been no purchases made that raised any eyebrows. Personally, knowing the temp — who has been with us for some time (and who has asked for a permanent position in the office) — I have no reason to believe he would be stealing. The anonymous emails most certainly come from within the office (they are too specific with certain physical details about the office to not be), but IT could not trace the IP address, which appears to have been masked. However, whoever is sending the anonymous emails would not have access to any card, receipt, or bill – so unless there was an out and out confession, all evidence seems to be at best circumstantial.

How would you handle these anonymous emails? To be honest, I stepped up to the plate to be a good employee and have checked all the receipts, but this incident is making me re-think that position, as it appears whomever is sending the emails is making unsubstantiated claims, and could easily make them against me. Ultimately, what I and the senior approving person in the office want is for whomever is sending the emails to come forward with evidence that the temp is stealing – if he was stealing this is something we would want to know, but this email-sender has hidden behind an anonymous email address. Any insight would be great.

Ugh, anonymous emails. They are rarely, if ever, the correct way to handle a problem, and they put the receiver in a really awkward position because now you have to wonder all sorts of things: Is this a real problem or someone with an unsubstantiated ax to grind? Should I spend time investigating this? How much time, if a first look doesn’t reveal any problems? If I stop after that first look and later it turns out there was a problem, will I be to blame for not investigating further? But should I really spend large amounts of time on something that I have no way of knowing is credible? Why wouldn’t the person come and talk with me directly? Is something wrong with me or with our culture that someone thinks they need to communicate this way? And so forth.

In any case, I’d do the following in this situation:

First, let the person in charge of approving purchases know about the note immediately. It sounds like you’ve done this, but I want to make sure, since it’s important that they’re in the loop on this.

Next, you said, “Unless the receipts were doctored, there have been no purchases made that raised any eyebrows.” However, the note-writer did charge that the temp was doctoring receipts, so if you’re going to look into this, you need to find some way of checking that part as well. How you do that will depend on the specifics of what’s been purchased, but you should be able to at least spot-check that too.

From there, if you’re then satisfied that nothing looks amiss, at that point I think you have three options — and you could do any or all of these:

1. Let it go. You’ve investigated and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

2. Depending on your culture, it might make sense for someone in authority in your office to say to everyone: “I’ve received an anonymous report of behavior that concerned me. It’s very difficult to act on anonymous reports, and I believe they can create a culture of fear and mistrust. I’d appreciate if it the person who sent this would approach me privately. And more broadly, there’s ever something you want to raise but you’re afraid there will be consequences to you for doing so, please talk with me and we’ll figure out a way to ensure that you’re not penalized for being the messenger.” (Then, of course, your workplace has to be committed to following through on that.)

3. Talk to the temp. Explain you received an anonymous report about this and that you have no reason to believe it, but that you want to ask if he can think of anything that would have given someone that impression. Maybe there’s some procedure he’s using that’s inadvertently appearing shady to an observer, who knows.

I don’t love option #3, because if the guy hasn’t actually done anything wrong, it’s going to cause him unfair stress and anxiety. On the other hand, most people would want to know if someone was making false allegations about us and he might want the opportunity to defend himself, even if you’ve already decided there’s nothing to the charges. Plus, if there’s something he can change in his procedures to make them more transparent, he might appreciate the heads-up and chance to do that. But it’s going to be a crappy feeling to know that one of his coworkers is making false allegations against him, and since he won’t know which one, he’ll have to suspect everyone.

In any case, you can do any combination of #1-3 above. And then, as you go forward from there, you’ll also have the tricky burden of having to do two things at once: not letting this  adversely impact how you see the temp (because it’s not fair to let his character be impugned by anonymous allegations that you can’t find evidence of), while simultaneously keeping an eye out for opportunities in the future to settle this, whether by noting future displays of integrity from him or by diving in further if you see something a little odd in his receipts down the road (that perhaps you would have ignored previously). That’s an inherent tension, of course — to not let the guy be marred by this while still having it in the back of your head. That’s another reason anonymous reports suck.

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