When you shake hands with a new employee, don’t assume he’s just another friendly face. More companies are hiring private investigators when they suspect there’s a theft or a drug ring operating on company time. The spy, posing as an employee, tries to get the scoop by working side by side with employees and hanging out with them after work at bars and the softball field.
“A spy is a lot more common than people think,” said Rob Kimmons, president of Kimmons Investigative Services, a private investigations and security firm in Houston.
“We’ve never put someone inside who didn’t come up with other things,” said a police administrator who oversees internal investigations for a government agency in Houston. If private investigators were looking for drugs or theft, they discover employees sleeping on the job or leaving work early.
The administrator, who asked not to be identified, said undercover operatives have found employees selling drugs while they were supposed to be working. Other times, they have found small rings of employees stealing tools they later sold to pawn shops.
Private Investigators put to work
If the private investigator is doing his job right, the new employee shouldn’t arouse any suspicions, said Kimmons, who is a former police officer. But it’s tough to introduce a new employee during a time when the company is laying off workers or has a hiring freeze.
But there are ways around that.
One company that hadn’t been hiring put it’s operative to work painting the warehouse, Kimmons said. After all, it needed a paint job.
“You want someone to be able to move around a lot,” Kimmons said. For example, at one hospital Kimmons installed a spy as a housekeeper. That way, he could roam the entire hospital.
To be believable, a good spy operative has to know how to do the job he’s hired to do. No one is going to believe someone is a plumber if he doesn’t know how to unplug a toilet.
And sometimes technical skills are more important than investigative ones. Kimmons needed an airplane pilot to infiltrate an organization, so he found an out-of-work pilot and taught him how to investigate.
And, of course, a good spy can’t ask too many questions.
“You try to get them going and then shut up,” he said. It often takes a couple of weeks to get enough information to call the police.
Some companies routinely bring in undercover operatives every six to twelve months, Kimmons said. After a while employees ask all new employees if they are spies.
The private investigators, of course, say they’re not and eventually, employees trust them enough to start talking, he said.
Threats, harassment targeted
Companies are starting to use private investigators when employees have been threatened or when they’ve complained about on-the-job harassment.
“They’re getting the heck sued out of them when they don’t do anything,”Kimmons said.
Sometimes private investigators are a way to collect evidence before the harassment gets out of hand, he said. And having an undercover operative on-site offers an employer the presence of protection but without the image of an armed guard.
One company that sells and services farm and construction equipment in Houston brought in an investigator when one of its managers had his life threatened by an anonymous caller. The caller complained about racial slurs made by coworkers.
The investigator, who did not go undercover, interviewed employees to find out whether anyone else had been complaining. The company also put guards on the threatened employee and his family.
“We acted on it right away,”said the company’s human resource manager, who asked not to be identified. “I think it showed employees that the company was very concerned and interested.
Some companies even go as far as to hire investigators when an employee is being harassed by a spouse or friend, Kimmons said.
Companies are reacting much more quickly, he said, They’re putting the threatened employee under surveillance, passing out photos of the harasser all over the building and instructing employees how to react if the harasser shows up at work.
By L.M.Sixel, Houston Chronicle, June 7, 1996