Sticky Fingers at Work

August 21, 2007

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A new report says that $94 million worth of NASA office equipment has gone "missing" over the past 10 years. Whether due to worker dissatisfaction, a sense of entitlement, the thrill of the steal or plain old absentmindedness, the five-finger discount is all too common in almost every workplace.

NASA has lost $94 million in office equipment over the past decade, looking the other way as employees give computers to spouses or claim missing laptops are lost in space, according to a new report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). Some sample explanations for "lost" items, which include televisions, printers and other items, are highlighted in the report.

One employee explains the loss of a laptop computer this way:

My wife needed a computer at home to perform her work as a real estate broker so I checked one out from the surplus stock available. I turned the computer back in when she was done using it but never received a receipt.

Last year, NASA investigated only a quarter of the 1,136 loss reports submitted and disciplined employees in two cases.

The five-finger discount is all too common in most workplaces, where break rooms (Missing coffee creamer, anyone?), coworkers' cubicles ("better stapler than mine") and even the first aid kit (free Band-Aids!) are designated targets.

Spherion Staffing Service, a Florida-based recruiting and staffing company, recently announced survey results showing that nearly one in five workers (19 percent) has stolen supplies such as pens, paper, paper clips, Post-it notes and file folders, during the past year.

A survey by Harris Interactive and LexisNexis last year was more extreme, finding the majority of workers (58 percent) have taken office supplies for their personal use.

Even the plants aren't safe from office sticky fingers: Harris Interactive found that 2 percent of the employees surveyed admitted to taking decorations such as the leafy corner dweller, as well as paintings and office furniture. (How do you suppose someone sneaks out of the building with, say, a rolling chair that doesn't belong to him or her? Tucked under a blazer?)

It isn't easy to uncover the "opportunistic, cagey" employee who has taken them, and because supplies are singularly of little monetary value, workers may not view taking them as theft. Taking a company pen home could be done completely absentmindedly, of course.

Workers surveyed by Spherion Staffing said the primary reason office supplies were taken for personal use was because they needed them (41 percent). Nearly one-third (32 percent) said it was because their boss/office manager said it was OK to do so, and 15 percent claimed the company will never miss them.

Only 21 percent of workers expressed guilt.

Although the financial value of purloined office supplies tends not to exceed $10 to $15 per episode, most companies likely don't suffer a significant hit. Yet supplies that seem small can add up to have a costly cumulative impact to a retailer or other low profit-margin business' bottom line if enough people take desk items here and there.

It's kind of like "nickel-and-diming" a business to bottom-line losses. For small businesses, in particular, employee theft can cause a huge dent each year.

In addition to pens and paper, employees are also stealing resources directly related to the productivity of business — classified information, patents, corporate contracts, case studies, periodicals and so on.

So American employees, at least, "should be aware that they are putting themselves at potential risk of termination and could possibly face legal consequences," a legal editor at Lawyers.com told SmartPros.com.

"In most cases, an employer wouldn't fire a worker for taking a notepad, but if they decide for whatever reason that was a problem, they could," an employment partner with a Los Angeles-based law firm told MarketWatch (via The Wall Street Journal's Career Journal). "At-will employees can be fired for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all."

A CareerBuilder.com survey last year indicated that nearly 40 percent of managers had fired an employee for theft. Although 45 percent of hiring managers said they would automatically terminate someone for stealing from the company, 48 percent said it would depend on the object and situation. Seven percent said they would not fire the culprit.

Comparing various industries, the CareerBuilder.com survey found health care, IT and manufacturing had the highest amount of workers own up to engaging in office theft while retail, sales and hospitality had the lowest.

Resources

Lack of Accountability and Weak Internal Controls Leave NASA Equipment Vulnerable to Loss, Theft, and Misuse GAO, June 2007

WANTED: One-in-Five U.S. Workers for Taking Office Supplies for Personal Use Spherion, June 18, 2007

Plants, Decor and Furniture Among the Items Office Workers Admit to Stealing Harris Interactive/LexisNexis, May 1, 2006

Stealing Office Suppliers, What's Up? Office1000.com, Jan. 4, 2007

Workers Admit to Stealing Supplies ... and Plants SmartPros.com, May 4, 2006

Who's Making Off with Office Supplies? by Kristen Gerencher MarketWatch (via WSJ Career Journal), June 9, 2006

Thirty-Eight Percent of Managers Say They Have Fired Someone for Stealing at the Office CareerBuilder.com, Aug. 22, 2006

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