Sweethearting: How to find and prevent this type of employee theft

March 27, 2024

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Sweethearting is one of the most difficult forms of employee theft to deal with. It’s widespread, costly, and hard to uncover with traditional security measures. What’s worse, most employees guilty of offering sweetheart deals don’t see it as theft. Many even consider it a part of good customer service. 

Here’s what you need to know to stamp out sweethearting in your business.

What is sweethearting?

Here is a simple definition of sweethearting:

By some estimates, sweethearting is the most common form of employee theft. It’s also one of the hardest types of employee theft to uncover. 

See how Solink’s loss prevention software can uncover every type of employee theft, even sweethearting.

A woman is shaking hands with a man in a restaurant.

Sweethearting characteristics

Sweethearting is really hard to spot because of some common characteristics of all types of sweethearting. This is a big problem for retailers and restaurateurs especially because not only is it hard to find sweethearting, but it’s incredibly pervasive. 

In fact, one study found that 67% of respondents had given sweetheart deals in the previous two months. Given that even anonymous respondents tend to lie in favor of socially acceptable answers, sweethearting is likely even more common than this statistic implies and considered socially acceptable by most employees.

Here are some common traits that make sweethearting difficult to uncover.

  • Employees often don’t see sweethearting as a type of theft but rather as a normal “work perk” or a way of “providing better customer service.” This makes it easier to rationalize the theft.
  • It’s easy to do. Point of sale employee theft doesn’t require any effort, making it easier to “just do it” when a friend or family member asks. 
  • Sweethearting is very common. As mentioned above, two out of three employees interviewed said they had given sweetheart deals in the previous two months. With that level of prevalence, sweethearting can be very costly.
  • Like most POS employee theft, sweethearting requires more than just security cameras to uncover. Since, as we discuss next, sweethearting can be performed in many ways, it isn’t always immediately clear on your retail CCTV cameras when someone is giving sweetheart deals. 

Different types of sweethearting

Sweethearting is performed using several different techniques. However, they all involve an employee providing discounts or free items to someone else, their “sweetheart.”

Here are some common types of sweethearting:

  • Quid pro quo: Some employees will provide discounts to others in exchange for discounts at that person’s employer. For example, a person working at a clothing store in the mall might give a barista 80% off some designer jeans in exchange for an equivalent number of free cups of coffee.
  • Skip scanning: Similar to self-checkout theft, a worker in a supermarket might scan every other item when their mother is checking out to lessen the family grocery bill.
  • Free food and heavy pours: In restaurants and bars, employees are working for tips. Some servers might provide extra appetizers or heavy pours to get better tips.
  • Discount abuse: Discount abuse is extending one’s personal employee discount to friends and family. Alternatively, someone might incorrectly stack senior, veteran, and other discounts for unqualified friends to reduce their bill.

Why do employees provide sweetheart deals?

When asked why they sweetheart, employees often say that they consider it part of good customer service. Whether this is motivated by personal incentives (such as better tips or happier and easier to deal with customers) or business ones (a belief that repeat business outweighs the cost), it means that employees don’t see sweethearting as a crime but rather just part of the job. 

This is one of the reasons it is so prevalent. An employee who offers sweetheart deals is likely to discuss this openly and teach new employees to do the same. Unlike other forms of theft, where they’d work hard to keep it quiet, employees will happily share their sweethearting techniques with coworkers. That means a culture of sweethearting can become established in a business, which is very difficult to eliminate.

How big of a problem is sweethearting?

Theft is a huge problem for retailers. In fact, the NRF recently pegged the cost at approximately $100 billion per year. With roughly 1/3 of shrink being employee theft, it’s safe to say that sweetheart is costing businesses billions of dollars annually.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most employees freely admit to sweethearting and don’t see it as theft. Furthermore, once a culture of sweethearting is established, it’s likely that the entire staff, including new hires, will sweetheart.

In addition, sweethearting is difficult to uncover, making the total losses attributable to even a single employee can reach well into the thousands before they are caught.

A female barista processing a transaction at a point of sale terminal

Sweethearting examples

Sweethearting can be seen across all industries, from hospitality to car washes. However, the most affected industries are bars, restaurants, and retail.

Sweethearting in retail

A lot of retail sweethearting mimics self-checkout theft, but instead of working alone the shoplifter has an accomplice working for the business. 

Here’s an example of sweethearting in retail.

A grocery store cashier sees their father shopping. He proceeds to the checkout aisle. The clerk, knowing that most grocery store security systems would find it difficult to detect skip scanning, proceeds to slide meat across the POS scanner so that the barcodes aren’t read. 

This saves the family hundreds of dollars per trip and contributes more in loss than the monthly subscription for an effective cloud-based video surveillance system that pairs video with transaction data.

Sweethearting in restaurants

Sweethearting in restaurants is often done with the goal of providing better customer service and value. This could be in the misguided attempt to build repeat business or in the entirely self-interested goal of increasing tips. 

Here’s an example of sweethearting in restaurants.

A server takes an order for a family of four that includes two appetizers. Since they need to input any food orders into the POS for the kitchen to prepare the food, they can’t simply skip the POS system. Instead, once the food is brought to the table, the server voids the appetizers. If prompted for a reason by the POS, they may take the time to write an issue, such as slow delivery, food is cold, or other customer service issues.

The ultimate goal is to push a 15% tip on a $100 bill ($15) to a 25% tip on an $80 bill ($20). In doing so, the server earns an extra $5 per table while the diners walk out saving $15, and the business is out $20. Multiplied across dozens of tables per night, that’s the difference between a full-service restaurant becoming very successful or going out of business.

Sweethearting in bars

Sweethearting in bars can be the result of many different things. It might be, similar to restaurants, done to attract higher tips. Sweetheart deals are also often given out to friend groups. 

Another, potentially more dangerous, form of sweethearting is providing strong pours as part of a bartender flirting with patrons. In addition to lost margin, this could result in heavily intoxicated guests, with all the safety and legal issues that can bring. In this case, preventing sweethearting also keeps your bar and its patrons safe.

Here’s an example of sweethearting in bars.

A bartender sees their friends enter the bar. They proceed to provide pitchers to the friends while ringing in a single beer each time. While the keg will run out more quickly, over the course of a busy weekend where many kegs of beer are sold, it’s hard to pinpoint when and why this occurred.

How to find and prevent sweethearting

The fact is that sweethearting is one of the most difficult types of employee theft to uncover. However, there are ways to reduce sweethearting and build a culture that does not tolerate giving sweetheart deals.

Here are some ways businesses can reduce sweethearting:

  • Perform background checks: Whenever possible, perform complete background checks on new hires, including calling previous employers to ask for references.
  • Comprehensive loss prevention training: Especially in high turnover environments like restaurants and retail stores, it’s important to still provide comprehensive training around loss prevention to every new hire. This can include saving video clips of employees caught giving sweetheart deals to show during training, reinforcing the idea that you take sweethearting seriously and it will be discovered.
  • Ongoing training: Once an employee is trained, many companies stop the loss prevention conversation. By mentioning sweethearting and other forms of internal theft regularly, it remains front of mind for employees.
  • Integrate your POS and video surveillance: Solink allows you to filter transactions by type, size, and anything else and then automatically pairs video of the transaction. When you suspect an employee is giving out sweetheart deals, it’s easy to review all of their high-risk transactions, such as voids or long duration bills under a threshold value, to find instances of sweethearting.

Solink offers a powerful solution for identifying and preventing sweethearting in your business. By seamlessly integrating video surveillance with POS data, Solink provides clear insights into transactions through exception-based reporting and AI video analytics. 

This approach not only helps in uncovering current instances of sweethearting but also deters potential future incidents by demonstrating a commitment to loss prevention. With Solink, businesses gain a critical tool in their efforts to protect their bottom line and maintain a culture of honesty and integrity among their staff.

Want to see how Solink can put thousands of dollars back in your till? Sign up for a demo today.

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Timothy Ware is Solink’s Content Manager. He brings over ten years of writing and editing experience to the job. When he isn’t writing about security, loss prevention, and asset protection, he’s enjoying his newest board game. His work has appeared on many B2B SaaS websites including Baremetrics, Security Today, TeamPassword, Cova, and SignTime.