Three behaviors every dental practice owner should be on the lookout for
Back in 2018, we featured a blog that covered the difficult topic of embezzlers within dental practices. As we all know, just two years later, the world looks markedly different.
As we navigate the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the turmoil, inconsistency and disruption faced by dental offices during this time may increase the opportunities for employees to steal from a practice.
“Need and greed are the two main reasons employees steal,” says David Harris, Certified Fraud Examiner and CEO of Prosperident. “COVID is going to create more families with financial issues. Suddenly, you’ve got a single-income family that’s living a lifestyle that’s geared for a two-income family. We all know there’s a massive re-adjustment in the economy right now and there are going to be a lot of desperate people.”
In his day-to-day work at Prosperident, David assists dentists with forensic accounting and investigation in addition to reviewing dental practice policies, procedures, and systems so that owners can make it harder for employees to steal and embezzle.
His career began when an old friend suspected that an employee was stealing funds from his dental practice. David not only found a “cheat book” detailing the theft but also helped his acquaintance fire the employee. Two weeks later, David encountered that very same employee working at his own dentist’s office. It was a loudly ticking time bomb that he deftly diffused, unbelievably, for a second time.
Over 30 years later, while the office systems, technology, and dental practices have changed, the behavior of employees who steal has not.
“The basics of this haven’t changed in probably hundreds of years—yet it’s still a current day problem. A lot of our calls are behaviorally related,” David notes. “I’m emphatic that you need to understand the way people behave when they’re stealing and be vigilant for that kind of activity.”
So, what kind of behaviors should every dentist be on the lookout for? David shared four traits that thieves commonly share:
Reluctance to take a vacation
While a thief is away from the office, it becomes impossible for them to quickly diffuse probing questions, so they may want to avoid time away from the office.
For example, if a patient notices a billing irregularity and calls to inquire about it, as long as the embezzler is there, it can be swept under the rug and be dealt with.
“When they are on vacation, that call goes to someone else and the embezzler can’t deal with it. However, does everyone who refuses a vacation steal? No, of course not, but it can be a red flag,” says David.
Desire to work alone
Embezzlers will often find a way to get into the office by themselves and make it seem routine and normal. They may arrive early or stay late, perhaps even clock extra weekend hours to “catch up.” Often, dentists see this behavior as an indicator of loyalty to the practice or a good work ethic that maintains high standards of the practice.
“Superficially, this looks to a dentist like the employee is hyper-loyal. In fact, they are–just not to the dentist,” observes David.
A thief will not want anyone else to have the ability to do their job and can be possessive about their duties. Whether it’s entering payments, or a resistance to explain processes to other employees, embezzlers will often put up roadblocks so that no one else has the ability to do or understand their job.
“It stops the dentist from being able to rely on other cross-trained employees,” cautions David. “Being tight about your duties stops the devolution part of your job to other staff. It also stops them from being able to question or report something out of the ordinary.”
How should you confirm your suspicions?
While it may be hard to recognize this kind of behavior outright, identifying trends and patterns in actions and decision-making may confirm your suspicions about who may be stealing from your practice.
The typical embezzler takes between 2-4% of a practice’s revenue, which may not be immediately recognizable to a dentist on a single monthly statement. In addition to being keen to employee behavior, maintaining good financial practices is vital to stopping embezzlement in its tracks.
So, what should you do if you suspect that an employee is embezzling?
“Whatever happens next needs to happen covertly,” cautions David. “Don’t confront the staff member right away, until you have received professional assistance. Also, keep in mind that police typically lack the ability to be the primary investigators of this crime because it’s very technical.”
Instead, immediately focus on getting the proof: when did it start, what was taken and how was it concealed? An investigator can help you take the right course of action, from gathering evidence, to engaging police when the time is right, to confronting the employee, all the way through to any legal trials that may unfurl.
While it can be impossible to avert the act, owners can be empowered with preventative measures that make it more difficult to be victimized. This, paired with understanding the way people behave when stealing, can help you catch the problem before it goes from bad to worse. There is a lot of help available for dentists, you don’t have to do it alone.