Workplace Stealing May Seem Small, But It Can Cost a Lot

Employers lose billions of dollars a year in office supplies when workers take them for personal use.
Employers lose billions of dollars a year in office supplies when workers take them for personal use. –Flickr Creative Commons

What if you were searched on your way out of the office every day to make sure you weren’t smuggling office supplies out the door with you? “Any pens in your pocket? Any extra staplers floating around in your purse?’’

That might be the desk-job version of the situation that was at the center of an Amazon.com warehouse-related lawsuit this week.

Amazon’s $157 billion worth depends heavily on knowing exactly where all its stuff is at all times, so it’s probably more concerned about thieving employees than most companies. But even in more traditional offices, theft is common and can cost employers a LOT of money – tens of billions of dollars by most estimates.

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The interesting thing is that many people contribute to the problem without really thinking they’re doing anything wrong. Of the people who responded to a 2011 AOL jobs survey, 43 percent admitted to taking low cost office supplies like pens or envelopes for personal use.

We did a little (anonymous) polling around the Boston.com office and found most people don’t think swiping office supplies makes them a thief. “I would continue pilfering paperclips and legal pads for personal use,’’ said one person.

“I don’t feel bad about it, but if I got caught I would be embarrassed,’’ said another. “If you take a few paperclips, meh. If you take a whole box, that’s not right. Obviously, the more costly the item, the worse it is.’’

Nobody admitted to stealing anything more valuable than a couple of K-cups from a Keurig coffee machine, and everyone said stealing something like a laptop was unthinkable.

That attitude doesn’t surprise Jennifer Bunk, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Westchester University of Pennsylvania. Bunk studies workplace incivility, or rudeness between colleagues.

She says most people don’t consider rudeness to be a moral infraction. It’s more like a cultural thing. And she thinks most employee theft operates the same way.

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“A pen is worth how much, a few cents maybe? In some work places it’s just accepted that people do this, like in others it’s just accepted that we goof around,’’ Bunk said.

And if somewhere there exists an office where no paper clips ever go missing, Bunk says it’s probably not because all the employees are amazingly morally upright, but because they’ve built a culture that doesn’t tolerate stealing.

“It [would be] a violation of norms of mutual respect,’’ Bunk said. “Those norms can vary from organization to organization and even between microclimates within an organization.’’

Still, Bunk says there are sometimes personal factors at play. She suggests employees who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by their organizations can commit a small version of “workplace sabotage’’ when they steal. “I think stress can be a factor there too,’’ she said.

The reasons and rationalizations behind workplace theft are complicated. So are the many steps businesses may take in an attempt to curb stealing.

But whatever you do to hold your employees or co-workers accountable, do not follow the steps laid out in this insane WikiHow article, which suggests you hide a camera in the office plant and hire a private investigator to follow around your thieving colleagues.