With the holiday season in full swing, there’s a very good chance your team is getting ready to wind down and maybe even let loose. That’s right, it’s the time of year for the unforgettable office party, an opportunity for employers to show their appreciation to staff, to share a few cocktails at or away from the office and enjoy some time mixing and mingling and (hopefully) not spending time reflecting on work-related matters.

But with the yuletide festivities come a great deal of risk for employers.

Now, I’m not trying to call humbug on your holiday party plans. But it’s important for organizations and their HR teams to understand the employment law liability involved in hosting a gathering in the workplace. That risk increases exponentially when alcohol is being served and employees are left to find their own way home from the office party. Of course, some employers assume that organizing a gathering off-site relieves that liability, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Anytime an organization sanctions an event such as this, they’re on the hook until their employees are home safe and sound.

You might think the logical move would be to pull the plug on the party and spend that budget elsewhere. Not so fast. Holiday events are a great team-building tool that can help drive engagement. They’re also an important part of building a strong workplace culture, so it would be foolhardy to cancel such an invaluable opportunity to boost employee morale. The better approach is to think safety and security first when organizing an event, keeping these five tips in mind:

Make your policies clear—The objective here isn’t to be a buzzkill before the party gets started, but to remind employees that even though they’re enjoying the boss’ hospitality while off the clock, they’re still technically bound by the same policies that govern their behaviour while in the workplace. That message should be delivered in a subtle way—a reminder rather than a lecture—but it should be explicitly communicated, either by email, in print or at a team meeting.

Hire security—If your staff party is small, say, fewer than 20 people including spouses, hiring a guard may not be necessary. But it’s wise to have security personnel in attendance at larger gatherings to help address any issues that may arise. That could mean dealing with intoxicated patrons who become a little unruly (which happens all too often) or simply patrolling and watching over items such as gifts or coats. Many business owners and managers are shocked when their events are targeted by thieves who root through jackets or walk away with purses and bags when their employees are busy enjoying themselves. What they don’t realize is that this kind of Grinch-like activity happens all the time, especially at large corporate gatherings that are preyed on by groups of professional criminals. Do yourself a favour and hire a trained and experienced security team to help make your holiday event memorable for all the right reasons.

Choose the right location—Set the conditions for your event’s success from the start by selecting the right venue. Whenever possible, try to pick a spot close to your workplace or close to where the majority of your employees live. This isn’t always feasible—especially for organizations located in the suburbs, whose workforces travel long distances to work—but doing so can be a practical way to encourage staff to leave their cars at home and take transit to work on the day of the event. At the same time, try to avoid choosing a hotspot surrounded by bars or clubs, which only encourages employees (particularly younger team members) to keep the party going well into the night and potentially past the point of intoxication.

Provide transportation—Include cab chits for employees in your party budget, or hire a van or bus to shuttle employees to the venue and home—whichever is the more cost-effective option depending on your team’s specific logistical considerations. One of the greatest sources of liability for employers stems from team members who hop in their cars at the end of an event and drive home, often intoxicated, only to get into an accident. This outcome is entirely avoidable with some proactive planning.

Think like Scrooge—Not when it comes to spending on a great venue, an impressive menu or even staff gifts. But do be stingy when it comes to serving alcohol. Provide a couple of drink tickets to each staff member at the beginning of the night, and switch to a cash bar at some point in the evening. Or, maybe serve wine at dinner and then move to a cash bar afterwards. The point is that open bars can turn into a security nightmare because they encourage outright intoxication. Appoint a senior (and designated sober) staffer to manage drink tickets, if you take that approach, and be sure to offer plenty of food and at least a few non-alcoholic beverage options throughout the event. Want to really limit the booze consumption? Make it a mid-day family affair and invite your employees and their kids.

The objective is to still have fun, say ‘thanks’ for another year of hard work and spoil your employees with a great party. But remember that safety and security should be a top priority. Maintaining that focus will help mitigate the kind of liability and risk that would otherwise drop a lump of coal in your stocking this holiday season.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security

Retailers are always enamored over the holidays—malls and streets jammed with eager shoppers, cash registers ringing (or the similarly lucrative sounds of electronic sales racking up) and merchandise flying off shelves before Santa’s arrival. What’s not to love?

The lump of coal in most retailers’ stockings is the inevitable occurrence of shoplifting, which tends to spike during the festive season. Each year organizations go to great lengths to minimize shrinkage through everything from hiring extra theft-prevention staff to installing high-tech monitoring tools. High-definition cameras, the presence of trained security personnel, adding signage to deter would-be thieves and understanding your clientele—and who doesn’t fit in, while resisting the temptation to profile potential malfeasants—are all practical tactics to help mitigate the financial impact of the more than $3 billion in retail shrinkage that affects Canadian organizations each year.

But there are two largely overlooked—some might say unexpected—areas where our team begins any conversation around curbing retail theft: employee engagement and customer service.

A counterintuitive strategy

At Wincon Security, we help retailers develop comprehensive theft-mitigation strategies that include the tools mentioned above—and far more—when we develop a customized anti-theft checklist suited to your organization’s specific needs. But we also ask several business-focused questions that take that discussion to another level. The first centres around metrics such as employee turnover.

Why? Because it’s one indicator of lackluster engagement. The more workers that abandon their employer at a high frequency, the likelier they are to engage in criminal behaviour such as stealing merchandise. Despite what most retailers believe, internal shrinkage is an even greater risk than external theft. Even though many stores will inspect employee bags before leaving the premises, the fact is that employees determined to remove goods from a store can usually do so with relative ease. Yes, surveillance helps, but only to confirm when a theft has occurred.

Prevention requires a much more proactive approach.

Think culture first

We advise retailers to focus on building stronger relationships with their workers, including part-time holiday staff, and consider implementing employee-friendly measures. That can range from bumping pay rates to slightly above industry standard and improving training programs, to simple tactics such as offering recognition for a job well done or throwing team-building events. The goal is to give employees a sense of ownership and to tie them closer to the organization. Happy employees are far less likely to lift merchandise than their disgruntled colleagues.

Taking service to the next level

When it comes to providing better customer service, many organizations think that means training staff to approach all customers once they enter a store, asking them if they need help and then keeping an eye open for suspicious behaviour. These are all perfectly-appropriate techniques that do help minimize theft. But retailers—particularly those catering to luxury clientele—need to do more. They need to provide great service.

That means engaging with customers, determining their needs, being present when they try on clothing or as they test merchandise, guiding them through the purchase cycle with information about the good or service on which they’re considering spending their hard-earned dollars, and making them feel truly special. Deepening that engagement, perhaps by offering to enter customers into your store’s database to provide better service in future, or to help keep them up-to-date on new promotions, sends a message that your relationship is more than transactional. It’s about working together to satisfy their unique retail needs over the long haul.

On the security front, providing high-touch service sends another message: we’re on the lookout for potential thieves and we will catch those who try to leave our store without paying for merchandise. It also shifts the focus from providing what some might consider to be harassing service—when a salesperson follows you around the store and won’t allow you to browse in peace—to adding value by helping them achieve their shopping goals. That could mean presenting them with interesting alternative options, such as a different style garment or a different model of electronic device, for example.

Now, you may be wondering why a security firm is providing advice on the HR and sales front. Because smart, forward-thinking security requires a holistic perspective. We’re happy to sell retailers our integrated security services, but we know through both empirical data and experience that they’re far more effective when our clients take a 360-degree view of their security needs.

Doing it the right way means looking beyond the obvious, and finding positive ways to thwart would-be thieves.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security

‘Tis the season for spending time with family and friends and the inevitable yuletide spree of shopping and gift-giving. Suburban malls and high-street stores are jammed in the lead-up to the holidays, as Torontonians make a final festive retail push before taking a breather and preparing for Boxing Week bargain bonanzas.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when busy retailers must contend with wide-scale theft. Statistics show that Canadian businesses lose more than $3 billion annually to crime, including both internal (e.g., employee) and external shoplifting that eats into profits and compromises retailers’ competitiveness. Rather than tackling the problem head-on, a new Toronto Police Service pilot project is moving in a very different direction.

Toronto Police Service introduces Stop Theft 

First-time shoplifters caught pilfering items within the boundaries of the city’s 51 and 52 divisions will no longer be prosecuted under the six-month Stop Theft program, an initiative that will permit private security and theft-prevention guards to effectively catch and release shoplifters after documenting their personal details, then providing them to officers at one of the two divisions participating in the program. The Toronto Police Service’s aim is to free police resources to deal with higher-priority calls.

Non-violent shoplifters who are 18 years of age or older with identification and who are accused of stealing merchandise totaling less than $1,000, are eligible for release. Police will still attend the scene if requested and reserve the right to lay charges by summons in future, depending on the circumstances.

“What we’ve been trying to do through the modernization process is make sure that our police officers are where the public needs them the most,” Meaghan Gray, acting director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service, told the Toronto Star. “And maybe responding to … shoplifting calls — that can be held just as efficiently by a theft prevention officer partnered with us over the phone — allows us to reassign those officers to more pressing calls for service.”

While the efforts of police to more effectively utilize their officers’ time is laudable, the bigger challenge for retailers can be summed up in a statement last year from Diane J. Brisebois, President and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada: “It is estimated that retailers lose more than

$8 million a day to store theft. What is more worrisome, however, is that today’s thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated, therefore posing an even greater risk to the health and safety of the Canadian public.”

Removing a theft deterrent

Indeed, the major challenge with the Stop Theft program is that it assumes that shoplifting is limited to individuals such as thrill-seeking teens and those with mental health issues. The reality is that organized crime groups are behind much of the bottom-line killing losses plaguing retailers at all levels. Products such as razor blades and baby formula—the latter used to mask drug trafficking, or sold for a hefty profit on the black market—are two products that have long been a prime retail target for organized crime.

A program such as this removes the most important deterrent to shoplifting—immediate arrest and the threat of significant prosecution. It will be an especially major problem in less-prosperous areas already dealing with high rates of both minor and major crimes.

Retailers will need to continue to invest more in loss-prevention tactics, including the use of civil demand recovery letters, which allow them to sue alleged shoplifters in civil court to recoup the cost of a stolen or damaged item, not to mention costs relating to security patrol and enforcement. It’s safe to assume that overwhelmed police won’t have the time to follow up with an accused shoplifter after an incident, even if the person has a criminal record.

Why? Cash-strapped, budget-conscious police services simply lack the time and money to continue to pursue low-level crimes as they once did. The unfortunate reality is that retailers will pay the price and will need to pursue punitive litigation in an effort to deter would-be thieves—itself a potentially costly process.

Programs such as Stop Theft are designed to modernize the response to some crimes, but in doing so they tend to sow chaos and return us to a time when low-level crime was rampant. Now, unfortunately, shopkeepers need to be more vigilant than ever, treating every customer as a potential shoplifter, which is always bad for business.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security