Project Management

A thieving coworker presents a sticky situation for an IT consultant

There are no easy answers for consultants who uncover coworkers that are stealing computer equipment from clients. Here is a good example of just such a dilemma faced by one TechRepublic member, along with the problem's satisfactory resolution.

Editors's note: This article was originally published February 4, 2003.

When an IT consultant has evidence that suggests a fellow contractor has been stealing and reselling a client's computer equipment to other employees, you would think that the consultant could turn the perpetrator in without a problem. That would be true if our consultant were a regular employee. In that case, a call to HR -- and probably the police -- would be the obvious solution.

But as a consultant on a contract, things couldn't be more complicated. When this particular consultant discovered that an employee's home computer was actually one that was still listed as being in circulation in the client's inventory tracking system, he was confronted with a dilemma: If he reported the offense, he could place his firm's consulting job in danger and would end up paying for every piece of computer equipment that had been taken under his firm's watch.

Here's a closer look at the consultant's dilemma and what eventually happened.

The scenario

"I am a consultant who is on contract with the IT department of a large manufacturing plant. For the past five years, I've provided complete technical solutions for this client, which has 500 workstations.

"Recently, I noticed that some small items were missing from the IT inventory, mostly memory modules from computers stored for distribution to users in an unsecured room. I had suspected a coworker, a fellow consultant with my firm, was taking them, but I had nothing to prove my suspicions until one of my users had me look at an issue with his home computer.

"When he brought the home computer to me, I noticed that my client's inventory number was still on the computer. I first thought that this machine had been sold to move obsolete equipment out of the client's company, but after a thorough check, I found out that this computer was registered as being still in use by the client.

"After talking with the person who brought the computer to me, I found out that the computer was sold to him by the coworker that I suspected was taking memory out of machines. Following an annual inventory check, I found out that several computers were missing as well.

"When confronted with the evidence, the suspected coworker denied any wrongdoing, offering some half-verifiable documentation of buying the computer from the company. But a check of the company's online inventory report verified that this computer was designated for an employee other than the suspected consultant. A conversation with the person responsible for sales of obsolete equipment, who said that the computer was to be used for several more years, also verified that the computer was stolen."

The reaction

"Here was my dilemma: If I reported the thieving consultant to our client company, I feared our bid would be in danger. Plus, we would have to pay for every missing piece of equipment. If I reported him to my company, he would most likely lose his job (which isn't so bad, considering his work practices), but all others working for this client would then be viewed suspiciously.

"If I did nothing, the dishonest employee would stay, and -- because the thefts happened while we were in charge of the IT department -- our company would still end up having to pay the damages. Obviously, this coworker lost the trust of everyone, and I was worried he would take something else the next time he was in the IT department alone, which happened often, since we all have keys and 24-hour access because of the nature of our business.

"In the end, I and several others reported the employee to a project manager who then notified the client company. Once our clients found out about the thieving consultant, they were at first shocked, but later they notified my company and waited for our response. My company called a meeting, during which the thieving consultant and I were both present. The thieving consultant was given a chance to clear his name by providing explanations for everything that happened. He tried to defend himself by blaming other coworkers, speaking of conspiracies against him and, of course, lying.

"It was pretty obvious at that moment what his fate would be. He was given until the next morning to provide evidence of purchasing that computer. He couldn't do that, and so the next morning the thieving consultant was fired.

"Our clients, although disappointed, were satisfied and surprised by the quick response. My company is also paying for all the damages made. (We have since found several other computers that were "altered" by the thieving consultant, but no new problems have been reported since he left.)

What would you do?

If you've dealt with a similar situation, what action did you take? If you were a client, how would you react to revelations that a consultant was stealing your equipment? Post your comments and suggestions in the discussion.

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13 comments
TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827

Yes, it sucks, but there is only one right thing. You bring it up to your management, they fire the person and they notify the company of the wrongdoing. You need to try internal channels first, barring that, you go direct to the company and move on. I would seriously doubt that any company that had this brought to their attention would fire the consulting company. More than likely, the $s involved are not huge, and integrity counts for so very much these days. You offer to work with them to create processes so this can't happen again and you probably have a customer for life. Anything that ends in a final result where the thief is not punished (fired, whatever) and the client company learns of the problem is not right. TripleII

John.Schupp
John.Schupp

I believe that they absolutely did the right thing in this instance however, I think it is simplistic to say that it shouldn't have taken any pondering on the whistle blowers part. The reason for this is that from a business perspective (say the contracting companies CEO for instance) it is easy to say of course this is the right thing to do and of course if something like this is going to disrupt the contract it was a bad contract to begin with. However, from the whistle blowers perspective the hardest thing about doing IT contact work is that it often has an uncertain future, what if the company lost the contract and the whistle blower then loses his job? There are ethical and practical questions that are involved. And while I am glad to hear that the right thing was done and there were no adverse consequences for the whistle blower or his company, the loss of trust and a job are nothing to dismiss out of hand.

RS9
RS9

There is only ONE truth, not many. Todays world feeds us that Morality is relative... This is evident in the story and some of the replies. Most respondents gladden me with the obvious. My own experience with a large Central Florida theme park, and "Blowing the whistle" on millions of dollars of theft by an internal dept. turned out very bad! Yes, I didn't think twice about doing what is morally right! Not psuedo relativistic morality, but what is the only morality! I turned them in to upper management! They buried it! (This company was it's own county) I was fired! 49 years old, 5 kids in high school. I never was able to recover. I tried to fight them but couldn't find an attorney with enough spine to go up against a multi-billion dollar mega entertainment company with enough hi-paid corporate lawyers to fill a 5 story BIG argyle building. I was blacklisted. I was never hired again. Would I do this again? You Bet! In a heart beat. So how did it all turn out? Things just went my way. Some people called for help in my field of Energy engineering, then more, and finally, I found myself self employed making much more money! Right has a way of taking care of those who do right... Don't EVER listen to the "relative morality" crop of rotted apples! They're dead inside. One who Loves what's right in Orlando.

TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827

"the loss of trust and a job are nothing to dismiss out of hand. " Loss of trust for who, in what way? Yes, the thief won't trust you again, but so what? There is no grey here, and certainly you can worry about the consequences of doing the right thing, but whatever the consequences, it doesn't change what the right thing is. If the company you work for is ethical, you will gain trust. You will gain the trust of the customer. I don't see where you can lose trust in your comment. TripleII

jackfrank
jackfrank

Why is this even a discussion? Is it that difficult to figure out what the right thing to do is? These types of things never stay hidden and it's far better to go the client when you know versus waiting for them to figure it out eventually and then firing you for not telling them

Ronin69
Ronin69

1) Notify your company so your management can prepare for the client's reaction and so they can chart a course of action. In other words, let your management earn their pay. 2) If your management decides the best course of action is to do nothing. I would seek employment somewhere else and notify the client. Your reputation is worth more than staying with a shady company.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

at the forefront of consideration skews analysis of the situation. If the contractee is such that the contract can be lost by correctly dealing with the situation (as was eventually done), the odds are that the contractee is dishonest, in which case why contract with him/her in the first place? The real problem is the thief. To suborn that to anything else discredits the integrity of the analysis. edit: clarify etu

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think what they decided to do was right, but I'm not sure why it took so much pondering.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I would have taken all of a picosecond to make that decision. First and foremost, it's the right thing to do. Even if you were going by the baser motives, it's the right thing to do because: 1)The theft would have been found by the client companies auditors eventually. 2)Not reporting the theft is conspiracy. 3)A cover up makes the company look VERY bad. People can understand a bad apple, but not the company that wants to hide the worm.

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