I was reminiscing today with a friend about jobs we had when we were in high school and college. We had both worked in a kitchen for a big restaurant–he in Philadelphia and I at a resort in Minaki, Ontario where my cottage is.

We both saw that there was little slack in either kitchen we worked in–among cooks, busboys, waitresses, dishwashing machine operators (I was the latter and so was he), etc. It would have been very easy to catch someone slacking off. Productivity was relatively easy to observe.

But what got us talking about that was a cable TV show that my wife and I have been enjoying: Mystery Diners. It’s on Food Network.

The typical set-up in the half-hour show is this: Someone–almost always the owner of the restaurant–comes to the main guy because he’s concerned that his business has dropped off. Given how much liquor is used, he’s not getting the revenue he’s used to. Or certain regular customers aren’t showing up as much. Or, in one case, that of an art gallery, the caterer is suddenly charging 20 to 30 percent more (he says he charges based on food eaten and wine consumed) even though the number of patrons at the art gallery events has not increased.

So the guy and his staff start their process. One of his people investigates the background of key employees. Another shows up looking for a job as a waiter or waitress. Another shows up as a customer. Etc. They also set up cameras everywhere so that they can keep an eye on what happens. Then they invite the owner to sit with them and watch the drama unfold. Virtually always there’s employee theft. (Of course, they probably aren’t showing the ones where they can’t figure it out or where there’s simply bad management.) The thieves are brazen. And when they are confronted, they get incredibly self-righteous: I was doing it for you, I saw that your business was failing and I tried to turn it around. (Never mind that I was pocketing $20 per customer that you were never seeing and handing out free liquor.)

In one episode we saw recently, the manager was putting out on social media notices of raves at a steak restaurant that served an older steady clientele. The people were told to come and ask for him. They paid their $20 and were led out to a patio where there was loud music and they could drink all they wanted. The owner had cameras that fed to his cell phone, but what he didn’t plan on is that the manager brought in a techie who set up the computer so that the feed from the patio was not of the real-time events but was from an old tape showing the patio with people quietly eating their meals.

It reminded me of a mutual friend of ours named Harry. We were all in the Ph.D. program together at UCLA. I had met Harry at the University of Western Ontario and we had driven down from Canada together and been roommates for the first 2 years. When I had met Harry, he had come off a year leave-of-absence as an undergrad at UWO to buy and run a Sunoco gasoline station. The station had been phenomenally successful. I think I recall Harry telling me that Sunoco said it was one of the most, if not the most, successful Sunoco stations in southern Ontario, which, of course, is where over 80% of Ontario’s population lived. Harry told me that after that year, Sunoco asked him if they could hire him to write a manual telling how to run a gasoline station successfully. Harry turned them down, pointing out that the manual would be very brief. In fact, it would be four words: “Guard against employee theft.” And the main way to do that circa 1970, before the era of cheap cameras and video feeds, was to be there. There was not a good substitute.

I had asked Harry at the time how employees stole. He answered that they would give oil and other merchandise to their friends. That reminds me of a blog post that former guest blogger Garett Jones wrote on this site. Here’s the key segment:

I had a friend in high school who got a job working at a frozen yogurt shop precisely because he was unpopular: The owner was tired of losing inventory every time the cool kids came by.