Paul Butler | Theft at work

Paul Butler
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A few weeks ago, I had my bicycle stolen from outside our office building.

I was aghast and annoyed. I became all puffed-up with my own self-righteousness as I convinced myself the thief was “bad” and I was “good.” I remember saying to my wife, “I can’t understand why someone would steal something from someone else — I’ve never stolen anything in my life.”

The following morning, I had the answers to my questions but still no bike. I came to the realization everybody does steal from others in one way, shape or form and that I, too, have stolen many things in my working life.

Stealing at work can take many forms. People choose to steal money, supplies, inventory, office furniture, time, productivity and joy from their employer, co-workers, customers and suppliers. I am guilty of all of these, and I’m sure, if you’re honest with yourself, so are you. What is it, so deep down within us that causes us to take what isn’t ours?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that annual losses suffered by companies due to employee theft and dishonesty amount to about $50 billion. The report states that about 75% of all employees will commit theft at least once in their careers and that 38% of employees will keep stealing and will make it a habit. A third of all failed businesses can trace their failure to employee theft.

According to a study by Hiscox, U.S. businesses affected by employee theft lost an average of $1.4 million last year. Small and midsize businesses accounted for 68% of cases, and their median loss last year was just under $300,000. The most common embezzlement scheme was funds theft (35%), followed by check fraud (22%). The report finds that nearly 95% of all businesses suffer from theft in the workplace.

Employees who steal from their employers cite many reasons as to why they did what they did. They feel their employer has wronged them or underpays them for their hard work. They believe the employer is insured for such losses and so is not affected. They consider the consequences set in place by the employer for theft are minimal or are not enforced.

Employees may also steal to get revenge on their employers. Those who suffer a pay cut, or who feel overworked and underpaid might seek to even the score with their employers by stealing time or money from them. One of the main reasons employees steal is because it’s simply too tempting.

Maybe the bicycle standing there locked up in the Californian sun was tempting the thief to free it and ride it. Maybe the thief thought I could easily buy another bicycle. Maybe the thief thought I would be insured. I can rationalize this, but it still sucked that someone stole something that was mine and not theirs. I’d worked hard for it — they hadn’t. Humans are horrible to each other sometimes.

A few days later, my hope in humanity was restored. My two office mates, Jim and Big T, presented me with an envelope within which was a handwritten card expressing their sadness at my bike being stolen. Tucked inside the card was enough cash for me to go buy a brand new bike! I was gobsmacked!

Having my bike stolen taught me a few important lessons about the workplace.

Theft is real and really expensive. Most of us steal. But most importantly — the brightness within the human heart can outshine the darkest darkness when there’s been a U-turn.

The way I look at this economic transaction is: The bicycle store “won,” as they sold me some inventory. I “won,” as I received an even better bike. Jim and Big T “won,” because the joy they had in giving to another was more valuable to them than the gold they gave. I guess the person who really “lost” out was the thief — he thought he got something for nothing, but the sweetness of stealing will eventually become a bitter taste.

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