When we are called into a business to consult for security reasons, there is always a reason that we are there, always. It usually is because crimes are already occurring on the premise and management or ownership needs them to stop. This is way about 50% of the time, we are asked about hidden cameras. Many people get it into their head that the only way to catch the culprit is to catch them in the act by being covert and hiding a camera or multiple cameras throughout the facility.
There is some truth, in that capturing someone in the act is the best way to terminate their employment. However, the root cause of the issue should also be considered. If the crime in question is theft by an employee, as it is often the case when we are there to install cameras, the big picture must be considered. Theft is always the fault of the thief, I will state this clearly as they should not get quarter for their crime. However, theft in a business can sometimes be an indicator of the overall perceived culture in the business. This is not to give the thieves a pass in any way, but as managers or owners, it should be considered carefully in how we deal with and prevent the recurrence of this behavior.
Even good people can do bad things. We are reminded of this all the time when we enter family businesses, as the outcome is often that some of the most trusted members are actually the culprits. All it takes is for an otherwise good person to be able to justify in their own head the damage that they will be doing to the entity or business. If the employee feels a mistrust or abuse from management, then it may become easier for them to justify theft in their head and perpetrate the crime. The perceived culture of a business is a delicate teeter totter indeed. Combine mistrust and distant management with peer pressure from other employees that have already perpetrated the same "small crime" and it puts an otherwise good employee in a difficult situation. When they find out about other employees committing the crime, they have the choice of turning a blind eye to the theft, reporting it to the management and alienating themselves permanently among their peers, or partaking in the activity themselves. This may be a blunt look at it, but really when it all boils down, an entering employee takes their cues from those around them, and I would venture that the majority will do what is commonly accepted, especially after hearing the justifications that their new fellow employees deliver.
This is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to turn around this culture that is damaging the business. You might catch one, or all of your employees conducting the same theft. For bars, this happens pretty often with drinks that are taken by the employees on the clock. So if you catch all of your employees drinking, are you ready to fire all of them at once? If not, and you just fire the worst offender, then you have set a precedence, not one that states that theft is not tolerated, but one that says "don't be the worst offender." So you cut out the largest offender, and hire to fill the open position, they are brought into the same culture, with employees that know they were also seen doing the same thing, and were watched doing it but are still employed, so they relay to new employees that it is ok because if someone is always doing it worse than them, then they are safe.
So how does this relate to hidden cameras? Well it has everything to do with hidden cameras actually. The "knee-jerk" reaction to theft is to install a hidden camera in the area where you believe theft is occurring, so you can watch and see what happens. This hidden camera, if well placed will indeed capture that video...and perhaps video of a great number of employees doing the same thing. The first problem, is that you will be watching intently right after installing the camera, and in doing so you will likely catch and fire the first offender that comes across on screen. The hidden camera then becomes visible. While you are not compelled to show the video to the exiting employee unless compelled to do so by a court, you are clearly making a decision based on hard evidence. So the first person to commit the crime, are they the casual abuser, or the influencer of the crowd who is promoting the behavior in others? Chances are it is the former. Now that your hidden method of capturing the thievery is revealed, an all-out scramble by the promoter and his minions will ensue, to find the device that is providing evidence enough for a person to be fired. Employees are smart, and they will begin to observe their surroundings in the area of the event that transpired, until they have satisfactorily found the device that led to the downfall of their comrade. The new smoke detector or motion sensor or outlet that doesn't work will be found. Yes we have many devices with cameras hidden inside them, but nothing is infallible when placed under life-threatening scrutiny. Now logistics will change, and they will begin scrutinizing their entire environment to assemble a strategy going forward. Congratulations, your problem has now gotten worse. Sure there may be a few in the crowd that will decide that their internal justification for the crime does not outweigh their desire to keep the job, however slowly but surely the behavior will re-emerge with an even greater level of planning fueled by the feeling of unfair oppression. A boarding school in England, of all places, decided this was a great way for them to curb their theft, perhaps someone should have considered it a bit more first.
Alternatively, you may decided to sit and wait once your hidden camera is in place, collecting a larger amount of data, to find everyone involved, to cut off the head of the uprising as it were. I can definitely identify with this strategy, as it will help you to find the root cause and identify all persons involved. However, with this strategy, you must be prepared for what you will find and be ready to clean house. Usually in this type of situation, the culprit may be a long trusted employee, friend or family member, or perhaps an entire shift worth of staff. If you are not prepared to terminate all of them, then the situation might get much worse, as you have to pick and choose the worst offenders as we discussed previously, basically promoting the culture to continue or possibly worsen.
Placing a hidden camera will further worsen the employee culture as well, as when it is found that you are watching covertly, and you will be found at some point, they will feel that their rights were violated. It may not be the case, as long as the camera was positioned in an area that did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy making it legal, but is it morally right? How would you feel if someone was secretly watching you? That is the feeling that your employees will take with them when they find out. The worst offenders, or maybe all of them may be cut out of the fold, but ones that are left will now have a negative view about management in general because they "encroached" upon their sense of security by covertly monitoring. So while you may have cut out a part of the cancer, the chance of recurrence has increased 10 fold.
Some managers already come to me and are worried about what employees will think if visible security cameras are posted around the business. I have always maintained and seen evidence that employees that are doing their job understand the need for security when it is obvious and are actually more nervous about how the camera system will be used. For example, if an overly oppressive or micro-managing type of individual is in charge of the camera system, and is using the system only to point out every little flaw in every employee's work habit, then yes, I agree, employees will hate having the cameras. But in reality, they just hate the oppressive environment created by a micro-manager. Security cameras will not change the way you manage, so post them proudly, then show that the information will be used for praise as well as discipline, and the good employees will be happy the cameras are in place, or at minimum understand the benefits. Over performing employees often feel that their additional labor and toil to overcome the slacking of a co-worker is overlooked, but security cameras simply tell the truth in these situations, so using them as a tool to demonstrate the benefits goes a long way to aiding the development of a good working environment instead of the opposite. Very difficult to nurture that same environment if your plan for coverage is completely covert though.
What about the technology aspect
Till now, I have focused on the morale and impact of the hidden or covert spy cameras, however I would be remiss to end without fully discussing the differences in technology employed between overt and covert technologies, as this is a very important consideration as well. Covert security cameras employ pinhole type lenses, which allow less light to reach the image sensor than a traditional lens. This can greatly affect the picture quality, as security cameras are taking the light to convert it into a picture for you to view. Therefore, these pinhole sensor cameras will require a brighter environment to produce the same quality picture as a camera with a traditional lens. This means if placed in a darker area like a bar, storage room, cooler, dimly lit hallway or other dim area, your picture quality may suffer drastically by going with this hidden type of technology. It is also very rare for a pinhole style camera to employ Infrared technology, because the normal IR LEDs (850nM) are visible to the naked eye (glow red), and the IR light is similarly restricted by the pinhole lens. Some cameras try to employ 950nM IR LEDs which produce no glow to the naked eye, but are also less illuminating to an already restricted camera. As definition of the camera increases, such as in the case of HD pinhole cameras, the light becomes even more of an issue, as more pixels are packed even tighter on the image sensor, requiring even more light to get through the lens.
If I don't hide the cameras, how will I catch them?
Well this is a tricky question, because it will all depend on the individuals in your employ. First, even with a visible security camera, I do not advocate showing people exactly what is covered and what is not. They will not know where the gaps are (if any exist), without testing the limits. An overt plan for coverage of your business with visible cameras however, will help to keep the otherwise honest employees honest, and also give them an excuse when they feel pressured to "join in" on the behavior that "everyone does". Beyond that, it also provides an avenue of reporting for the honest employees that we spoke of earlier who otherwise had a very difficult decision on turning in employees or partaking...because with the cameras in place, there is plausible deniability presented when they are grilled about whether they turned a fellow employee in. Because they can simply come to you and say, hey something happened that I don't feel right about, you should be able to see it on cameras on friday at 5PM. Everyone knows the cameras are in place, so it allows you to hold their co-workers responsible without implicating them at all. Finally, there is the factor of complacency. After the cameras are there for a few weeks, or even a few days, many employees will become ambivalent to their presence and will continue doing everything that they would have otherwise done. Bad seeds are bad seeds. Trust me, I have helped customers export some video that even shocked me, ranging from outright theft from registers to having sex when they should have been cleaning the restaurant, even when they know cameras are watching.
Even if the theft stopped before you caught the culprit...is that really a bad thing?
In 14 years of security assessments and presentations to clients, I have not always been able to change the mind of all of the business owners and managers who desired to equip their businesses with covert cameras. Unfortunately, they often found my conclusions above to be the truth once their security plan was unveiled. So I plead, consider all of the ramifications of deploying security cameras in your facility, and make sure that you make an informed decision either way. I judge it off of the golden rule, and consider how I would feel about a covert plan to watch me, compared with an open policy, followed with a statement of xxx behavior will not be tolerated. We have noticed, and we are taking it very seriously. Please, give the employees who are otherwise good people the chance to make the right decisions this time around, and let security cameras improve the environment and morale, instead of destroying it. No one likes to be watched without their knowledge, its kind of creepy, and eventually it will be found out.