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Are you an office thief?


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

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

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

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

75 comments so far

  • The other thing offices are doing is to provide such crap stationary that no one wants to use it much less steal it.... EXP stuff anyone?

    After all if you provide pens encrusted in semi precious gemstones, even (czech) presidents aren't above pilfering, on national TV no less.....

    Date and time
    June 22, 2012, 10:27AM
    • Agreed! The office supplies provided by my employer is so average or non-existent I've resorted to buying my own to bring to work. Pens, In-trays, folders, even a white board for my office. Their strategy might reduce employee theft but doesn't do much for job satisfaction!

      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 2:25PM
    • The office has entered our home with taking work home (even if it is just thinking about it).
      It can’t be stealing if the objects are where work occurs.
      Toilet paper would probably be questionable. Our work toilet paper does feel it is gravel (if not gem) encrusted. Most of us steal home paper & bring to work.

      Ron Spiers
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 6:45PM
    • Agreed with Ron Spiers- we already have to do overtime, and most of the time- work from home. Whilst taking Toilet paper or clearing out the teabags maybe too extreme, 1 or 2 pens and a few sheets of paper are required just to finish off a board paper here or a forecast there.

      Otherwise, how do we work- surely a company can't expect us to not only do unpaid overtime, but have to pay for it ourselves....

      Date and time
      June 23, 2012, 7:00PM
    • Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) covered this years ago in "Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies: Dogbert's Big Book of Business ".

      Date and time
      July 04, 2012, 2:06PM
  • So its time for the hoary annual about how all employees are theives. When is the article on unforced overtime coming, IE you don't do it you got no job. Isn't this theiving, but of course that would mean a journalist has some perspicacity wouldn't it.

    real world
    Date and time
    June 22, 2012, 11:32AM
    • 'Perspicacity'. Hard to say which is tougher - spelling it, or saying it. But congratulations, you don't see it used in online comments much.

      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 1:27PM
    • And yet you spelt 'theives' incorrectly. The correct spelling is 'thieves'....

      I before e, except after c.... most of the time.

      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 5:15PM
    • GTTT

      It is I before E except after C when the sound is "ee"

      North East
      Date and time
      June 22, 2012, 11:14PM
  • I once worked with a guy in the UK who was fired after they discovered he was taking home rolls of toilet paper, teabags, sugar, spoons, and whatever other useful items he could get his hands on. The rest of the employees thought it was a big joke until he was told not to come back to work anymore!

    Date and time
    June 22, 2012, 1:17PM

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