Nothing screams, “Take me, I’m yours,” quite like a newly replenished office supply closet. Or the freshly stocked snack cabinet, spilling over with every Kind bar flavor you didn’t even realize existed.
For reasons that have everything to do with the fact that they’re free and that no one is going to stop you, it’s no wonder the office supply area feels a lot like the bucket of Halloween candy left outside someone’s door with a note that says, “Please take one.” As such, work bags across the country are nonchalantly carried out of offices every night, stuffed with untouched pens full of fresh ink, stacks of Post-it Notes still wrapped in plastic and those fresh yellow notepads that smell like Christmas morning.
But in case you needed reminding: Yes, this is stealing (even if it seems like lower case “s” stealing). And according to Susan M. Heathfield, an HR expert with more than 30 years of experience, there’s no real defense for this sort of behavior. “In my mind, nothing justifies stealing from the employer,” says Heathfield. “Anything an employee does to rationalize that behavior is their individual ethical failure. Anything their little voice in their head is telling them to justify theft is just BS.”
So, okay, it’s clearly an immoral act. Why, then, do so many people think it’s no big deal? Jennifer Bunk, an associate professor of psychology at Westchester University of Pennsylvania, told Boston.com in 2014 that it’s mostly just a matter of it being culturally accepted. “A pen is worth how much, a few cents maybe?” said Bunk. “In some workplaces it’s just accepted that people do this, like in others it’s just accepted that we goof around.”
Professor Gael McDonald from Deakin University, however, proposed a very different theory in a 2012 article in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Individuals have a fairly good assessment of their self-worth and if they feel they are being under-rewarded, or unrecognised, they will undertake activities within an organisation that redresses this inequity. This is why poorly paid workers often pilfer. The moral of the story is, don’t underpay the workers as they will get it from you somewhere else; either by taking something from the company, or cutting their time.”
She’s not wrong: According to a 2011 AOL survey — also cited in the above HuffPo piece — it’s not just some people that steal from their office, it’s nearly half of all office employees. “Last year, 43 percent of people admitted to taking things from work to keep for personal use,” wrote Arti Patel. “Eighteen percent of people claimed to have stolen items valued over $50.”
Exactly what constitutes stealing from an office supply closet? According to a 2006 New York Times article, even one measly pen is considered stealing. “Stealing is stealing,” Joel Saltzman, president of Shake That Brain, a business consulting company in San Diego told the Times. “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.”
Which makes you wonder, what would happen if those same people decided to steal from an actual office-supply store, rather than their office? Shoplifting is a problem that cost the retail industry nearly $50 billion dollars last year, but based on the online chat I had with an Office Depot customer service representative — who at one point thought I was trying to report an actual theft or that I was trying to turn myself in — nothing much would happen.
Which was surprising, but a Staples employee told me something similar. “We just let them be,” says Adrian, a sales associate at a Staples store in L.A. “We’re not allowed to stop any customer from taking anything for the safety of the sales associate.”
This hands-off protocol is one that serial shoplifters are well aware of, at least in part thanks to the “Shoplifting Master List” on Reddit, which includes everything from theft policies to the number of cameras (and their locations in the store) for nearly every retail outlet you might see at a mall.
So what have we learned from this? First, that it’s unequivocally wrong to steal from your workplace. Second, that that doesn’t stop us in the slightest.
And third? I need to figure out where the cameras are around the office.