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‘I had to turn detective to prove my pharmacy technician was stealing from me’

One pharmacy owner shares his words of advice for fellow contractors, and for regulators and commissioners, after he uncovered evidence his employee had stolen thousands of pounds' worth of goods from his business

In 2019, I employed a pharmacy technician. She presented as someone who had gone through a tough time at their previous workplace, and she had also been through some tough personal times as well. I took it at face value, as it resonated with me. I contacted the references she gave, which were positive, so I employed her.

Eventually, I became alarmed at repeated errors in ordering for items that we didn’t use in those quantities. I looked through orders from previous months and, to my utter horror, found repeated orders – some of considerable value. The convoluted and obscure nature of pharmacy payment systems and wholesaler invoicing doesn’t help with keeping tabs on spending.

I called the local police liaison officer and informed them that I suspected someone of stealing goods. That was the easy part.

Read more: Employee theft: how to proceed following initial suspicions


Turning detective


What followed was months of stress where I had to gather evidence. Not an easy task, as I didn’t want to alert the culprit. It took months of waiting and watching to eventually catch the perpetrator red handed. I had to turn detective on top of my daily contractor tasks.

The police weren’t particularly helpful. It took approximately six months for an officer to finally take the case seriously. They asked for more detailed information and started piecing the whole theft together.

Eventually, the police had enough evidence to pass the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, who then presented it to the culprit. She would face trial almost two years after being arrested.

I suspect the actual amount she stole from the business may be far more than was presented in court – I am still gathering evidence.

She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, on April 13. She also has to do 20 days' rehabilitation and 90 hours’ unpaid work.

She’ll face a further Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) hearing on August 17 to determine if and how much she will need to repay.

I'm absolutely devastated by this ruling and completely deflated.


“Deeply depressing”


To be honest, I have found the whole experience and subsequent process jarring, deeply depressing and extremely lonely. Members of the pharmacy profession often talk about the factionalism and how there is no unity in pharmacy – I can say this is exactly the lived experience.

While various pharmacy bodies offered support and kind words, the loss and trauma were mine alone to bear. I was responsible for gathering the evidence, proving what I knew to be a crime happening under my roof and chasing for action to be taken. 

The whole experience has taken its toll on my mental health. Imagine that you suffer for nine months worrying about bills not adding up, you then catch the thief and wait two years for something to happen, to then learn the culprit has received a suspended sentence. You are then told you must now seek justice from the civil court to stand a chance to recover some of the money, but only after you pay the solicitor and court fees – and that doesn’t guarantee you will get the money back. 

Nobody in our pharmacy world told me any of that – I had to go knock on doors and find out myself.

How is this justice? Pharmacists dedicate their lives to their communities and teams that work for them. How is this fair? I am subject to this trauma and financial loss, while the perpetrator will potentially get a slap on the wrist. We constantly talk about safeguarding and patient care, but who cares about us as pharmacists, as health professionals, our teams, and colleagues?

Read more: Crimes in pharmacies: How pharmacy teams are currently supported in the 4 UK countries


Who is to blame?


Is everyone else to blame? No, not entirely. I have also realised that pharmacy contractors run scared of regulators, they don’t want people knocking on doors and asking questions. The problem of staff theft is significant – should I be so brazen as to call it rampant? – in the sector, from anecdotal evidence. As soon as I shared my issue, at least a dozen colleagues said they had experienced theft by an employee but dealt with it internally.

How many of you reading this will know of a case of dishonesty or will yourself have been a victim of it within pharmacy?

Read more: Crimes in pharmacies: How a Sheffield pharmacy is faring after being robbed repeatedly

We hide the issue and don’t talk about it; we don’t ask for tougher sentencing, we suffer in isolation, we don’t ask for support, we don’t ask for change. But are we confident anything would change anyway?

I am to blame ultimately for making a bad call on her character, which I based on the facts available in front of me at the time.

To my fellow contractors, I would offer this advice:

  • Change rotas regularly and keep a log of them.
  • Install good quality cloud-based cameras, which you can bring up on a smart phone.
  • Ask wholesalers for regular business reports on items purchased based on frequency.
  • Spot check statements.
  • Always query bulk errors or repeated errors in ordering.
  • Ask staff to mark bank notes as they take them in.
  • If you haven’t already, encourage people to go cashless.
  • Carry out random bag checks.
  • Run Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
  • Introduce data checks on personal devices.
  • Speak to your HR teams and get better contracts in place.
  • And, most importantly, prosecute dishonest employees and raise concerns.

To regulators and commissioners, I would say if you want better patient care, look after the people tasked to look after those patients. Introduce standards of care into the system. Introduce lunch breaks where we must close, so we can have a mental break, or do some training. Create a body to monitor the sector’s wellbeing and a register that allows for anonymous tip offs and keeps accumulative safeguarding alerts.

I suggest creating Pharmacy Quality Scheme (PQS) points centred around staff safety, wellbeing, and training. So funding is linked and ringfenced for that alone and staff wellbeing is a central part in creating a positive culture of change and improvement.

If I was more on the ball and not worrying about so many other things, maybe I would have picked the theft up sooner. Maybe I would have been more thorough in vetting the employee when they first joined.

Read what steps to take if you suspect a staff member of stealing here

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