Thief

Many office workers feel entitled to nick the odd pen or post-it note.

It’s the kind of thing that goes mostly unnoticed – an express-post envelope here, a couple of highlighters or a glue stick there. But is the stealing of office stationery really stealing? 

In a survey of 2000 employees conducted several years ago by Kelly Services, one in four Australians admitted taking home (and keeping) minor stuff that belonged to their employer. It’s not as chronic as other parts of the world, such as the United States, where three in four people honestly declare their dishonesty. Apparently, the worst offenders are men with tertiary qualifications. 

Respondents said pens are the most common item they steal, followed by paper, postage stamps, mugs, toilet paper (seriously), and staplers. 

In a poll released last year by an office design firm in the UK, respondents said pens are the most common item they steal, followed by paper, postage stamps, mugs, toilet paper (seriously), and staplers. Other workers had stolen pot plants, filing cabinets, desks, chairs, and even – somehow – floor tiles.

Surely stealing the office toilet paper is going a wee bit too far?

Surely stealing the office toilet paper is going a wee bit too far?

Earlier this year, a 69-year-old man in Germany was arrested because he had nicked truckloads of office supplies from a range of workplaces – 25,000 kilograms' worth, actually – much of which he kept stored in his basement and attic.

It seems many employers are cracking down on it. I recall first joining the corporate workforce 15 years ago and marveling at the fully stocked stationery cupboard open and available for any employee to use. These days, every workplace I visit has the cupboard locked, with the keys restricted to the reliable hands of only a couple of people.

The other question to ponder is this: what precisely constitutes stealing? Some would say a pen, worth only a few cents, is no big deal – but stealing a box of them is a crime. Likewise, a thin pad of post-it notes might be OK, but a thick wad is probably wrong. Is stealing ‘stealing’ no matter the quantity?

Professor Gael McDonald from Deakin University tells me that, yes, “theft is theft, but somehow, there is a rationalisation that occurs when we look at the amounts involved. For example, stealing $50 from petty cash versus $500,000 from company accounts. The reality is that the same moral rules apply to both circumstances, even if our perceptions of severity differ".

I received a group email from a friend recently who had just started a new business and was cash-strapped. He needed flyers printed out in colour and couldn’t afford to use a professional printer. So, he asked us, would we mind printing 100 copies each in our workplace? After all, our employers had “screwed us over” in the past, so we might as well get something in return, he surmised.

Most of us declined. Some of us because we saw the action as immoral, while others had more practical reasons: even the colour printer was under lock and key, able to be operated only by the swiping of a security card that tracked the amount of each employee’s usage.

Perhaps a bigger issue for employers is one of trust. If managers ruthlessly restrict stationery supplies, they’re effectively saying “we don’t trust you” to their employees. That’s bound to have a negative impact on engagement and morale. If a great employee puts in a lot of hours and delivers excellent results, surely the occasional pilfered stationery item is a small sacrifice.

SME owners would disagree. It may be a small sacrifice for a big company with plenty of resources, but small businesses need to watch every cent.

So why do employees do it? Professor McDonald explains it’s usually due to something known as equity theory.

“Individuals have a fairly good assessment of their self-worth and if they feel they are being under-rewarded, or unrecognised, they will undertake activities within an organisation that redresses this inequity," she says.

"This is why poorly paid workers often pilfer. The moral of the story is, don’t underpay the workers as they will get it from you somewhere else; either by taking something from the company, or cutting their time. Anything to address the inequity.”

When is it OK – and not OK – to steal office stationery? Leave your comment below

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