What to Do if an Employee Sees Somebody Shoplifting

Think about your own safety first when you spot a shoplifter.

Think about your own safety first when you spot a shoplifter.

You catch it out of the corner of your eye: the well-dressed woman slipping a pair of gloves into her purse. Or maybe it’s the group of teenagers who distract a sales clerk with questions while one pockets several items from a nearby display, not realizing that you’re watching. No matter how it happens, when you see someone shoplifting from your employer, you need to take action to prevent the shop from losing money. The question is, what should you do? It might be tempting to pull out the moves you learned in your weekend self-defense class and perform a citizen’s arrest, but that’s not always the best approach.

Follow Policy

Chances are that when you were hired, you received training in what to do when you witness theft in the store. Whatever your company policy is, follow it. In larger stores, that will mean contacting security; you might have to use a special code over the store PA system, or pick up the phone and call the onsite security officer. In a small shop, though, you might not have a security officer to handle the situation. In that case, adhere to the owner’s established guidelines, which might include detaining the thief until the police arrive, confronting the shoplifter or simply letting them go and writing down a thorough description so you can file a police report.


The number one rule of confronting and detaining a shoplifter – if your company policy allows – is that you must have actually witnessed the person taking something. Suspecting that the teenage girl’s huge purse is full of stolen items isn’t enough; you have to actually witness the act, and the suspect's attempt to leave the store without paying. If you are absolutely sure that you saw someone take something, then stop them at the door and either ask them about the items that they didn’t pay for, or keep them in the store until a manager or security personnel can question them. If you confront them in a calm, professional and discreet manner, there’s a good chance that they will admit to the crime, and you can follow the policy set forth by the employer from there. If they deny the crime, and you are sure you saw it, then you can use the methods for detaining them that you learned in your training to the best of your ability.

Safety First

When you spot a shoplifter, keep your personal safety in mind. You don’t know whether the culprit simply has sticky fingers or actually has a gun or knife, so approach with caution. If they leave the store with unpaid merchandise, don’t go running after them and try to go all Chuck Norris – unless, of course, you’re trained to do so. Call the police and let the professionals handle it. It’s not worth being shot over a stolen sweater – and if your vigilantism is against company policy, you could end up losing your job.


As an employee, one of your tasks is likely to be the prevention of theft from the store. After all, if the store constantly loses money due to shoplifting, you could be out of a job. When you’re at work, make an effort to greet customers and offer help. Don’t follow them around like a shark in a lagoon, but check in occasionally and let them know that you’re aware of what’s happening. Keep the store neat and tidy, as displays that are in disarray are a magnet for shoplifters, and monitor fitting rooms closely.

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About the Author

An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer on topics including lifestyle, education, and business. She is the author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), and her work has appeared in Lewiston Auburn Magazine, Young Money, USA Today and a variety of online outlets. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.

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