Bosses have hands full as sticky fingered workers become hardened office crooks

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More and more of your colleagues are developing fingers as sticky as a fly trap so you might be forgiven for thinking your office has become a den of thieves. The cost of workplace theft is on the rise and many experts believe the “hands-on” approach of many of our colleagues is escalating.

Alarmingly, the real cost of workplace theft will be much higher because many cases remain undetected or are unreported. Most of us equate workplace pilfering with petty theft like ransacking the office stationery cupboard. If you are honest, you would probably admit to being a little too hands-on by pocketing the odd pen or two, stashing a stapler in your briefcase for the home office or nicking a company notebook to use for your shopping lists.

Maybe of late you have stuffed a toilet roll or two in your briefcase as you departed for the day.  It’s also possible that you have been a tad dishonest when completing a time sheet, stolen a couple of hours of work time to do some online shopping, undercharged a close friend to return a favour or applied an unauthorised hefty discount to keep in sweet with a family member.

And it is probably best to not mention that exotic-looking, dagger-like envelope opener that looked so good in your home office that it somehow failed to make its way back to where it belongs. Or the tablet you used when working at home one day before it got hijacked by your oldest child – and hasn’t been seen in the workplace again.

It is true that these cases of theft, while wrong, are unlikely to land the average office offender in the clink. But here is the rub: minor ethical transgressions can start workers down a crooked path and rapid transition from being petty pilferers to greedy gangsters focused on fraud, misuse of customer lists and company intellectual property, tampering with expense reports, embezzlement and skimming.

The bottom line is that office thieving often starts small and gets bigger. And those more serious inside jobs can result in huge financial losses and in some cases bankruptcy. Disturbingly and to many bosses’ chagrin, workers guilty of the most grandiose office thefts are often those who have been trusted the most and regularly the best performing workers.

Experts agree that bosses can curb crooked behaviour by looking for some critical and common tell-tale signs of would-be cubicle crimes.  Their behaviours range from a hesitancy to hand over work tasks, records or clients to others (for fear of indiscretions being discovered) and an unexplained close relationship or favouritism with a particular supplier (possible kickbacks) to unusual working hours (it is easy to pinch property when others are not around) and a personal lifestyle that doesn’t quite match their pay grade.

But it is the reasons behind our office crime wave that are the most intriguing. Some suggest we have simply become less morally engaged with our workplaces. Office crooks can argue many companies are faceless entities that do not have feelings and can afford losses.

Others are driven to office crime by changed personal circumstances such as mounting debt while some experts agree the advent of technology has made it relatively easy to sell purloined products online. There is also a view everyone in the workplace is so busy these days that there is less supervision and a lower risk of being sprung.

Think also about workplace theft being contagious, with some observing their colleagues getting away with pinching items and quickly following suit. And with many workers now “switched on” around the clock – even when at home – there is a blurring between what workplace items belong in the office cubicle and what could be justified for the home office.

There is also an argument by those who get caught that their many extra unpaid hours in the workplace make them entitled to “help themselves” as a form of compensation. But perhaps the most sinister reason of all is the thought that workers steal from their workplaces to get revenge. Perhaps the need for retribution has been triggered by a poor performance appraisal, a promised promotion that never materialised or – quite simply – perceived poor treatment by the boss.

Whatever the reason for the increasing number of sticky fingers in our workplaces, one thing is clear.  Just as office crims are becoming more sophisticated, so too are many bosses who have dropped their hands-off approach to theft and are increasingly making use of high-tech surveillance systems to curtail some of our colleagues’ lavish looting ways.

Others are undertaking greater screening of applicants, carry out random audits, set up confidential whistleblowing lines and make sure that workers are made aware of the punishments associated with being too hands on.

But for every prevention technique, hardened office thieves work to circumvent those measures. At the end of the day, encouraging every single employee to take responsibility for preventing office theft through heightened vigilance and to report any incidents are the only effective ways to slow the rising rate of these serious inside jobs.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer with the Australian Institute of Management.