by Sally Colby

Roba Farms is a diverse operation, with a portion of the business dedicated to growing trees for the landscape trade, evergreens and Christmas trees. The Pennsylvania farm also has a U-Pick orchard and numerous fall attractions that draw thousands of visitors every year. With more than 160 employees and 30 cash registers, the Robas have had to come up with good ways to monitor employee honesty.

John Roba and his son Jake discussed the topic of how they keep their employees honest at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey. John recalls their business being broken into about 15 years ago and the hassles that ensued. “After that we hired a security company, which is the neighboring county’s sheriffs and constables,” he said. “They do the parking too, and they’re on the farm until the wee hours of the morning. They’re in full uniform and when we first hired them, we got some grief from customers about their presence. But now people welcome the presence of security on the farm.”

Roba said another important measure is good record-keeping. He suspected someone in particular was taking money, and because of having records, he was able to figure it out. Although they couldn’t catch the employee in the act, when that employee was moved to a position that didn’t involve handling cash from customers, he didn’t last a week.

“Another woman was handling the drawers, and we caught her,” said Roba. “One of the drawers came up $100 short. Somewhere along the line she got a one-hundred-dollar bill and the bill wasn’t there. We looked at the cameras and we could see when she took the money. Our security guys said that by her body language it was clear that she did it, but we couldn’t prove it. She lasted about a week after being confronted.”

Jake recently redid the all the security cameras and locks on the farm. “We also went to using only iPads for credit cards throughout the business,” said John. “Most young people don’t carry cash, so if you aren’t taking credit cards, you’re really missing the boat. With good records and new iPads, you can check them any time, anywhere.”

Jake said that using Square on iPads helps them track transactions as they occur. Each iPad is named for the location it will be used, and management knows who’s on each one. “We can check each iPad as to its location,” he said. “If it’s off, we can go back and see each individual transaction to see where something went missing.”

If numbers don’t add up, the Robas speak with employees as a group to let them know they’ve found something amiss to avoid accusing the wrong person of taking money. “Then they know we’re counting the drawer,” said Jake. “When large amounts of money are being stolen, it seems like it’s by people who are closer or work higher up in the organization. A lot of the changes I made were to make sure even the top managers were being kept honest.”

An important aspect of the system at Roba Family Farms that keeps everyone honest, even the family, is the security system and each employee has a PIN. “They have 60 seconds to plug the PIN into a pad,” he said. “I get emails when it’s armed and when it’s disarmed, and it tells me who’s doing it. So, if my dad walks in at 6:37 in the morning and disarms the system, I get an email.”

Jake can also place restrictions so the system cannot be disarmed during hours he designates. “You hand out keys to people,” he said, “but don’t know if they’re making replicas.” In addition, windows and doors have contact strips that trigger a motion sensor, and Jake can access information online as to who has opened and closed doors and what time any action was done.

“If someone tries to swipe into our counting room at one in the morning, the door won’t release, and I get a notification that a key fob was rejected,” he said. “It’s a good way of keeping top people honest.” Roba Farms has security cameras on about half the registers, and also in what they’ve defined as high-risk areas.

While some employers find two-way radios useful, others have abolished them. A two-way radio can give the appearance of being more professional, but Jake discourages their use because everyone within earshot can hear what’s being said.

Jo-Ann Weber, of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Maryland, also talked about keeping employees honest because she hires new employees every year for their seasonal business. “We recently put in electronic locks on the doors that prevents people from duplicating keys and giving those keys to others,” she said. “We also got a fingerprint time clock that interfaces with our computers and payroll. Everyone has to sign themselves in — no one can sign their friend in.”

Jo-Ann spends a lot of time training cashiers, and cashiers must count their drawers both in and out so they can see immediately whether the right amount of cash is in the drawer. Although the Webers don’t currently have cameras, they plan to add them soon.

The Webers have a cell phone policy they believe helps keep their business more secure, and it’s simple: employees cannot use cell phones for texting while working. Jo-Ann reserves the right to text employees and they can reply, but employees cannot text one another. She added that while some employers take cell phones away when employees arrive at work and return them when they leave, she feels safer when employees have cell phones for potential emergency situations.

Michelle Collins of Fair Weather Acres in Connecticut has some strict rules for her employees, and is careful about who is allowed access to certain areas. The first week Michelle has someone working a register, she’ll question a transaction just to keep them on their toes.

Michelle tries to foster a relationship with employees and make them understand how hard her family works for the business, that it’s a family business, and when employees take from them, they’re taking directly from the people who want to keep them employed.

Some additional measures that help keep employees honest start include background checks and creating policies that are enforced. Establishing a mission statement for the business and explaining it to employees goes a long way in gathering support for your side and discouraging dishonesty. Upper management, supervisors and team leaders should exemplify honesty and encourage open discussions among employees. Be sure to create an employee manual that includes a code of conduct and specific instructions on how employees should handle sensitive issues including breaches of confidential information and observation or knowledge of fellow employees’ acts of stealing; whether direct or indirect.