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Everything That’s Ethical to Steal From Work—And Why We Do It in the First Place

How guilty should you feel about that ream of paper you ‘borrowed’?

Wilbur Ross and Rick Gates, Trumpian figures who allegedly stole and embezzled vast sums of money from their colleagues, stand as satisfying proof that anyone, even a rich person — hell, especially a rich person — can be a classic office klepto.

But what about all us non-millionaire working stiffs who just needed a few paperclips? Or maybe some cables? A mousepad? Maybe … some small electronics? What the hell can the average person steal from their workplace without being on the level of a corrupt, crime-thirsty blowhard?

It’s both simpler and more complicated than you think.

Before we outline a defense of taking things from work, we need to do a little self-interrogation first. Isn’t stealing wrong? Could I actually get fired or go to jail for nabbing something from the printer closet? And why am I stealing it in the first place?

Let’s talk about the ethics of office theft

Based on the way casual workplace stealing is written about, you’d think it’s a sin as grievous as murder. You can enjoy business consultant jagoffs telling the New York Times, “Stealing is stealing. One too many is too many, whether it’s a pen or a box of pens, or a carton of pens, or a laptop computer.”

A pen is the same as a laptop? That better be a fucking astronaut pen that writes upside-down in zero gravity, buddy. And even that pen costs only $10. Look, a pen is not a laptop. Anyone who pretends otherwise is — say it with me — your employer.

Let’s all calm down and make it clear that enjoying the amenities at your job is not stealing, and so long as you’re playing this like a person, you’re fine. Example: I happen to work at an office where the tampons are provided. That alone is insanely rare. Here’s the thing: I’m not going to stock my entire monthly supply of tampons from work. But let’s say I need a single tampon to take with me on my way out the door so I won’t free-bleed at the store? Yes. It’s okay. Jesus.

It’s not just one guy telling the Times that a single pen is serious workplace theft. I see this sentiment in nearly all the articles out there that are written from employer perspectives. Taken at their word, you’d think missing paperclips are why they can’t keep the lights on.

The cost of workplace theft isn’t what you think

Now this isn’t to suggest that there isn’t a serious rampant issue with workplace theft. Some estimates suggest our swiping amounts to some $50 billion in annual costs for employers in the U.S. But we’re talking about straight-up embezzlement — taking literal cash out of your employees hands, or meddling with payroll or credit card transactions and funneling it directly into your mortgage payment. This is bad and wrong.

But merch and property theft amount to only $1 million annually. Which means the kind of lowercase-T theft we’re talking about here is super-small-time. On some level, it’s the cost of doing business.

What’s more, compare this to the cost of wage theft — employers finding every which way to avoid paying fair (and legal!) wages to the tune of $50 billion a year, and it’s not even close to evening the score (on office supplies alone). Not to mention the average disparity between CEOs and workers has risen to “hundreds — or even thousands — of times” the average working shill’s paycheck.

Plus, many jobs are overwhelming and underpaid for very few perks. Job precariousness, for instance, is at an all-time high, leading one expert to say that jobs now amount to a “one-way contract” wherein the worker pledges total loyalty and 150 percent to the employer and gets…no such guarantee in return. Them’s the breaks these days.

The psychology of office theft makes perfect sense

But while easily 75 percent of workers steal office supplies, what’s more telling is why they do it: It’s usually because of broken promises.

Employers often woo talent with fair working conditions, reasonable hours, benefit X and benefit Y, a clear-cut job description, market-rate raises, a path upward… you get the idea. When they inevitably renege, the employee, feeling frustrated and helpless, essentially corrects the problem by taking a little extra.

You may be thinking that it sounds like the employee’s problem if they were denied a raise after three straight reviews. But research shows that workplace theft is most common in employees who outperform and feel undervalued.

Does that make stealing from work okay? Look, there’s THEFT and there’s theft. THEFT is embezzling money; theft is taking a goddamn pen. Keep your shit to “theft” and not THEFT and stop feeling guilty for needing that roll of tape the closet buys in bulk.

But could I actually get in trouble for stealing that ream of paper?

While it can differ in how that’s defined state to state, we’re talking petty theft that, at worse, means a fine and restitution to the victim, but never with jail time. In the randomly chosen state of Texas, for instance, stealing property valued under $50 could net you a fine of $500, but no lockup.

Why am I stealing it in the first place?

I know what you’re thinking: You need an airtight reason here that sounds really really sympathetic to justify stealing. I’m only stealing this pen from work because my wife is dying of cancer and it’s her favorite pen, and I can no longer afford it because my medical bills are so exorbitant!

Nope. It just needs to be logical low-level perk stuff that’s easier to grab from work and not that much and not all the time and mostly out of convenience that isn’t fucking over your coworkers. Are you out of a pen? Is there a pen here you can take? That’s a good enough reason for me, pal.

So what can I steal?

You may steal the following things with impunity:

Food

I ate personal pizzas at Pizza Hut in the 1990s often without paying for them. I made $4.15 an hour. I could not pay my rent on it. Don’t arrest me: I will put my soul up to Saint Peter for the reckoning. Taking food in this scenario is not a crime so long as it’s a reasonable amount and you aren’t preventing other colleagues from also enjoying this offering.

So take the second bagel. A bag of cookies for your kid. A second helping of the free lunch even though they said only to take one (if everyone else got one, that is.) Do not steal from your coworkers, even if they suck. Let karma take care of them. Not a single chip. We’re sticking it to the man here, not the man in the cubicle next to you.

Office supplies

  • A pen
  • Paperclips
  • A notebook
  • Post-Its (not the giant expensive ones, or if so, only once or twice)
  • Normal, useful office supplies

No actual electronics. No reams of paper. This ain’t a Staples, dude.

Printing

Yes. You may print concert tickets at work. No, you may not print your novel. That paperwork you need to get notarized? Yes. The application for your mortgage? Sure. A 50-page beginners’ guide to Fortnite? Don’t even try. Be reasonable. Be sneaky. But don’t be stupid.

Consider the story of Cassandra Pearson, for instance, which is a cautionary tale. The 34-year veteran administrative assistant in a criminal investigation department at a Texas Sheriff Department was fired recently after she got caught stealing on the job. The theft? A $4.96 box of latex gloves she wanted to use for some yard work. Now she’s out of work and has to go to court over this shit.

That is to say, don’t get caught. Because in theory, your employer can use literally anything they want to fire you — and then remove the pocketable items for everyone else in the office.