Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Workplace Theft

By Terrance Shulman

Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls is an In Recovery Magazine quarterly series with information and practical advice about compulsive buying, spending, theft and hoarding. Terry Shulman’s down-to-earth approach to these addictions comes from his own life experience, as well as his extensive experience as a treatment professional. He was featured in The Truth about Shoplifting, recently aired by CBC and CNBC.

Have you ever committed employee theft? I have.

How would you define employee theft? Is it only the blatant embezzlement and/or stealing of valuable assets from work? Is it a matter of degrees?

Be honest, have you ever done any of the following without the expressed permission from an employer?

Fudged your time card?

Padded an expense account or report?

Made personal phone calls on company time?

Used company postage?

Used office supplies for personal use?

Took office items home?

Borrowed funds for personal use?

Made personal copies on the copier?

Failed to report accounting or payment errors in your favor?

Used the company car for personal business?

Run errands on company time?

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chances are you are in the 75 percent or more of all employees who have stolen from the workplace. The American Society of Employers estimates that retailers lose more than twice as much from internal theft as from shoplifting and that 55 percent of employee theft is committed by managers and supervisors. Time theft or loafing costs U.S. employers nearly $500 billion per year in lost productivity. The FBI calls employee theft “the fastest growing crime in America”. Fox News Chicago aired a news story a few years ago estimating that employee theft had doubled since the recent recession began.

In a Detroit Free Press article, When All Feel Cheated, Who’ll Play Fair? (Brian Dickerson, April 28, 2011), the author begins, “Social scientists who study dishonesty have observed that people who cheat often harbor a deep-seated conviction that they themselves have been cheated.”

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has conducted research into the use of prescription drugs to boost intellectual performance, says cheating is easier to justify “. . . when you cast yourself as the victim of some kind of unfairness, then it becomes a matter of evening the score.” He explained, “You’re not cheating; you’re restoring fairness.”

Similarly, Richard Hollinger, professor of Criminology at the University of Florida, recently wrote:

“Based upon numerous research studies, an economic downturn is precisely the time that loss prevention managers need to be most vigilant for dishonesty. These declining conditions foster an atmosphere in which even those employees still working can be easily tempted into dishonesty. The reason is based upon the social-psychological principles found in equity theory. This theory posits that when inequitable situations arise, individuals take immediate action to restore equity in their lives. When retail sales associates feel unfairly treated and poorly compensated, they will take action to rectify the situation by working less productively, quitting or stealing from the workplace.”

Cluttered Lives Empty Souls

It is difficult for most company owners and managers to fathom that employees who steal think of themselves as the victims. However, in my 15 years of specialized counseling with theft offenders, I can report that this is often what they think and feel. For most, their grievances weren’t so much with their employers as with their families of origin, significant others, early perpetrators or abusers. In a passive-aggressive manner, they had taken their revenge at work against these presumed wrongs. This displaced anger and stress is not uncommon in life. Think about how one might yell at their spouse or kids after a tough day on the job.

The feelings of unfairness, victimization and insecurity are apparently becoming global. I sounded the alarm about this in my 2005 book, Biting the Hand that Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic. In my book, I noted these workplace trends, such as: layoffs, downsizing, outsourcing, salary/benefit decreases and dramatic increases in executive compensation.

The recent corporate bailout of banks and investment firms has made people cynical. If that wasn’t grand-scale theft and fraud, what was? Few were punished or held accountable. If anything, many culprits continue to reap bonuses. Such widespread fraud poisons the psyche of the workforce. By comparison, at least the Enron-era frauds over a decade ago resulted in hundreds of prosecutions and prison terms.

Nowadays, many employees don’t even see theft as theft. If they do, they justify it with, “They owe me!”

Why do people steal from work? One reason is that there are poor controls in the workplace. Most people don’t think they will get caught. It’s the same reason most people speed when they drive their car. They don’t think they will get caught.

For most employees who steal, a trigger, stressor or event puts them over the edge. A bad economy or a perceived or real pattern of unfair practices may provide the spark. As with shoplifting, employee theft usually starts off small, then escalates into a habit and, often, into an addiction.

Because company owners, managers and supervisors are hard-pressed for time and human resources, it is becoming more difficult to identify pre-employment and post-hire employees who might lie, cheat or steal. Studies suggest only 15 percent of applicants may have criminal records which show up on background checks. Besides, it is sometimes the star employee who is led out in handcuffs.

Paraphrasing the assertions of the Twelve Step program’s Serenity Prayer: We may not be able to change the culture of honesty in the world around us or the hidden attitudes our employees have adopted. However, we can change the culture of our companies by modeling honesty and integrity, by treating people with dignity, by “trusting, but verifying” and by doing our best to walk the fine line between carelessness and micromanagement.

Terrance Shulman

Terrance Shulman

Many of us were brought up to believe the old saying, “Honesty is its own reward.” Somewhere along the line, things went awry. If honesty is so great, why do so many people tell lies and keep secrets?

Good guys don’t always finish first. At some point, most of us learn not to be so naive about life. We learn that things aren’t always one- or two-dimensional. Laws, rules, commandments and guidelines are meant to give us some direction and assistance.

Giving up on honesty is a dangerous decision. Honesty promotes trust, self-esteem, positive relationships, admiration, respect, spiritual connectedness and serenity. Most importantly, it encourages others to be honest with you. Honest is the best policy.

Copyright 2014 Terrence Shulman

Terrence Daryl Shulman is a Detroit-area therapist, attorney, author and consultant. He is the founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding. He is the author of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery (2003), Biting the Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic–New Perspectives, New Solutions (2005), Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending (2008) and Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending, and Hoarding (2011). He has been featured on nearly 100 television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show.

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