Why are some employees unhappy and dishonest?


One procurement officer from Gauteng was found to be buying incredible amounts of toilet paper with company money, most of which she was selling on. She did so for months before anyone noticed. Clearly, there was a serious lack of effective controls in place. Opportunity also played a role here. However, when asked why she did this, the procurement officer said her boss was abusive, and he refused to increase her salary, even though she had been working there for over 15 years. He apparently also embarrassed staff in front of others, refused to take care of his responsibilities, and made offensive sexist and racist remarks.

The procurement officer was a good employee for years, and thus no one initially suspected her. Nevertheless, the point came where she could no longer bear the abuse and lack of adequate remuneration, and she wanted to get even. Stealing toilet paper is perhaps not such a big deal compared to what else she might have done in the absence of a suitable control system. It’s not right to steal, but we can see how the context of dishonesty can play a role.

So, how can companies prevent such problems? Internal and external auditing, good recordkeeping, and security are all very well, but staff may still find ways to balance the scales or cheat the system if they are unhappy. They may simply not perform well in their jobs. Employee engagement and satisfaction are critical, as are communication skills and open channels for dialogue. Even if opportunities exist, employees are much less likely to steal if they are treated fairly and happy at work.

Prior to the recent nationwide bus strikes in SA, the bus drivers did appeal to their employers for better pay and conditions. Communication failed, and not just for a few workers, for many, which led them to take extreme action. All bus transport operations ground to a complete halt. Though not a case of dishonesty, some felt the bus drivers and unions were being unreasonable in their demands, and the strike had serious repercussions.

One bus driver explained his dilemma. He was only being paid for some of the hours he worked, among other problems, and this caused him to feel very dissatisfied, thus leading him to support the strike. The strike may have been avoided if employers communicated better with their personnel and properly addressed concerns internally rather than leaving them to fester for so long and to the point where employees stopped working for weeks.

Is stealing just a matter of greed or need?

In the workplace, corruption and fraud among more senior officials and managers aren’t the only things that leach away company profits. Some employees steal small amounts of money from employers by not recording sales paid for in cash, and some steal goods. They may also exaggerate their overtime hours, shirk responsibilities that indirectly lead to profit loss (termed goldbricking), engage in slowdowns, leave early and come in late, and abuse leave and travel reimbursement provisions. All these things affect the bottom line.

But do employees only steal in one way or another because they need more money or because they want things they can’t afford on their current salary? No, these are definitely not the only reasons. Some very common, but avoidable causes of dishonesty in the workplace are discussed here. Few people will take a job for the purpose of stealing, committing fraud or other forms of dishonesty. This holds true at all levels in an organisation. One factor is opportunity resulting from a lack of adequate controls.

Employees dislike being monitored too closely or micromanaged. Employers are aware of this, and they want to allow some independence. They also don’t want to have to check up on staff all the time. Many bosses can tend to be very trusting of their staff, which is often warranted, but some managers adopt a lackadaisical approach. They may assume employees will be loyal simply because they have a job in a context of high unemployment, and they are paid a salary which the boss deems sufficient. Open dialogue is rare, and employers don’t take into consideration employees’ needs or conduct salary reviews. Many employees are stuck on the same salary for years with no benefits despite their responsibilities increasing. Still, they fear opening the topic of remuneration with their boss.

HR Development and Fairness

If employers refuse to assist staff in need of help, for example, with critical medical expenses or school fees, if they don’t give staff room to grow, and if they treat them poorly, employees will seek means to balance the scales. Companies need to implement appropriate preventive and detective measures, especially at weak points in the organisational system. Some of these weak points are not a matter of checks and balances or security measures. Weak points can also exist in personnel development, communication channels, and management’s behaviour. These problems place the organisation at risk.

Staff who are badly treated, including being verbally abused, harassed and discriminated against, and who are continually blamed when things go wrong in relation to what is their superior’s responsibility, are likely to seek some kind of justice because we all have an innate sense of fairness. When people feel they are being treated unfairly, they may engage in dishonesty which they feel is justified. Stealing will often develop into a habit. An employee can then become greedy when they see it is easy to fool their boss whom they have no respect for in any case. Eventually, their conscience no longer pricks them, more staff may engage in dishonesty, and the problem becomes rampant.

One of the most common reasons for employee dishonesty is a motivation stemming from dissatisfaction. The more dissatisfied staff are, the higher the chance they will steal. The person feels they are not being treated or compensated fairly and they want to get even. Employees may rationalise their dishonesty, viewing it as justice and not a crime.

Engagement and Communication 

Communication and engagement never happen on their own. It is up to management to take the lead and ensure staff are positively engaged and feel appreciated. Discrimination as well as verbal and other forms of abuse must be addressed swiftly. Injured parties must feel free to come forward with complaints, and they must be protected. Managers also need to plan ahead and proactively address engagement.

It is critical for the health of a business that staff feel valued. Even if their salary is not very high, an engaged staff member, who is at least earning a competitive salary with some benefits (especially those which are meaningful to them personally) is much more likely to be honest and loyal. There must also be a sense of justice in the workplace. Loyalty cannot be demanded. It must be earned.

UIF is one measure to have in place, but some employers neglect this. Medical aid also gives staff a sense of security. Providing lunch can reduce stress among those staff who are very busy, who work long hours, and particularly for those new employees who are not only desperate for a job, but also for the basic necessities of life. In order to help employees who come into the workplace from a destitute position, providing a simple meal can make a major difference in their lives. Telling staff that if they are in need they are welcome to request assistance will also help to prevent stealing. Given the choice between approaching a friendly manager who shows understanding of their needs and concerns or risking their job by stealing, employees are much more likely to choose the former.

Communication skills are critical for the manager and the staff member to have to ensure positive engagement. This is also not something that happens without effort. Competence in communication needs to be developed through training. Fundamental skills to teach include how to conduct a meeting, and how best to make use of communication tools, etc.

Many people are conflict-averse, and this is certainly understandable when they are being abused in the workplace. Conflict Management skills thus need to be taught as well as Diversity Management skills to counter discrimination. These three skill sets combined will go a long way to avoiding staff dissatisfaction and their seeking to balance the scales in a dishonest way. Investing in personnel through training in particular helps them feel valued. Upskilling staff ensures they are equipped to handle problems, and it opens career prospects which lead to workplace satisfaction.

Devan Moonsamy has more than 15 years’ experience in the learning and development space. He is the CEO of the I Can Help Africa Foundation (ICHAF) Training Institute Pty (Ltd), a SETA-accredited training provider.