The questions you ask an employee about a suspected theft may differ depending upon the type of theft. There are, however, areas that you want to be sure to cover:

Extent. The incident that concerns you may be only part of a pattern stretching back a long time. Ask about dates and amounts. Try to get the person to talk about exactly when he or she started stealing.

Motive. Give the person ample openings for explanation. You want to find out whether the theft came about as a result of simple greed, a pressing need (such as illness in the family), outside temptation (bribes from a competitor), ideology ("business is stealing from the workers"), the desire to revenge a real or imagined wrong, or peer pressure.

Accomplices. Try to find out if other employees were involved. Catching one person won't do any good if others involved in the same activity are allowed to continue with impunity. Furthermore, it is vital to know whether you are dealing with one "bad apple" or an organizational climate in which such actions are the norm.

Methods. Attempt to get a complete picture of how the theft was accomplished. This is important if you are going to prevent a recurrence.

The attitude you take in this interview and the manner in which questions are put have a lot to do with eliciting cooperation from a suspect employee. Some of the ways to maximize results are:

* Before interviewing, get as much advice as you can from your lawyer, local law enforcement officials, or an outside investigator -- anyone who may be familiar with the problem and knows about possible consequences.

* If possible, before you begin get the employee's written permission to tape the session.

* Keep the tone of the interview pleasant and businesslike.

* Start out by telling the person that you're aware a problem exists and that you hope he or she will help you resolve it. This may be enough to trigger a confession from an employee who is feeling guilty, and will also help to avoid putting the employee on the defensive.

* Direct the conversation to the area of suspicion and keep it going until you sense the person beginning to resist. Then change the subject to something nonthreatening for a few minutes before returning to the issue. People are more apt to be open with someone they feel is understanding.

* At some point, it may be helpful to show the person part (not all) of the physical evidence you have and ask for an explanation. Leave something to the suspect's imagination; chances are he or she will assume you know even more than you do.

* Ask open-ended questions rather than ones calling for simple yes or no answers. The more a person is allowed to talk, the greater the chances he or she will slip into inconsistencies.

* Don't detain a suspect against his or her will. Badgering someone who is not ready to make an admission seldom yields much useful information and may leave you open to charges of mental cruelty or involuntary detention. In some cases, suspects who would not provide information during an interview have then proceeded to make a full confession to a trusted superior.

* Don't make promises that you're not sure you'll want to keep. The employee may offer a full confession in return for forgiveness of the amount taken, immunity from prosecution, or an opportunity to retain his or her job. It is safest not to commit yourself to any such arrangement until you've discussed the facts with a legal adviser.