Friday, August 1, 2008

Stealing Office Supplies

Most workers who help themselves to company supplies know they are doing wrong -- but they do it anyway. A lack of engagement and work/life balance may contribute to the reasons underlying the thefts.

Lock the supply-room door and hide the key. A new survey says that nearly 20 percent of American workers are pilfering company supplies.

The survey, conducted by Spherion, a Florida-based recruiting and staffing company, found that employees expropriate everything from pencils, pens and paper to BlackBerries and laptop computers.

Moreover, the study reported that only 22 percent of those who admitted filching office provisions felt guilt or remorse. Yet, three-quarters (74 percent) said they know that stealing from the company is wrong, a 5 percent increase from last year.

"Stealing office supplies is a great challenge because there is virtually no way to secure office supplies in an economic way," says Clinton Korver, co-author of Ethics For The Real World.

The most common supplies lifted by employees, according to the Spherion study, are pens, pencils and rulers (67 percent), paper and Post-Its (57 percent), and calculators, staplers and tape dispensers (11 percent).

While a tape dispenser here and a box of pens there may not seem like much, the number of employees swiping laptops, PDAs or cell phones has increased in the last year from 5 percent to 8 percent.

"I don't think people are malicious," says Aleicia Latimer, associate general counsel and human resources services manager for Florida-based AlphaStaff Group, Inc., a human resource outsourcing company.

Office supplies are "like a buffet," she says. "You take all you can because it is there for you."

Such theft is hardly a new phenomenon. Plundered supplies add up to billions of dollars a year in losses for small businesses, according to a 2006 online survey performed by Harris Interactive.

So what can a human resource manager do to help curb office lifting? The short term answer is to step up security. Latimer suggests making people sign for each item they take or limit access to supplies by assigning a gatekeeper.

"People are less likely to take more than they need because they have to see someone face-to-face," she says.

It is also imperative that HR develop and enforce a policy for people caught poaching company stores.

"It gives people parameters," she says. "If someone does step over the line you can say, 'Here is the policy and you can't say you didn't know.' You can enforce your rules and regulations appropriately. But if you are going to discipline someone, you have to do it consistently."

Having a policy is important. But it won't solve office-supply theft alone. To significantly curb stealing, human resource leaders must delve deeper to understand why employees do it.

"I think the main reason people do this is because they feel that the company is doing well and making money and these are just supplies and do not cost a great deal to the bottom line," Latimer. "It is theft if you are not using it for work."

Certainly many employees don't equate personal use of office supplies with stealing. Others, however, know exactly what they are doing.

A 2006 Vault survey found that 60 percent of the employees who admitted stealing office supplies said they did so because they felt they were not fairly compensated for overtime.

A 2007 Harris Interactive survey for Deloitte & Touche found that "stress, long hours, and an inflexible schedule" contributed to employee bad behavior, including stealing office supplies.

That same study reported that 91 percent of the respondents said people were more likely to act ethically if they had a healthy work/life balance.

"It is important that the company says 'thank you' to its employees," Latimer says. "If employees feel valued and that they are part of the team, then if (stealing) is hurting the company, it is hurting them.

"If they feel like a cog in a wheel, then sure, 'you don't care about me and I don't care about you.' Being part of the team makes a difference," she says.

The Deloitte & Touche survey also noted that employees look to set the tone in the offices. They expect managers and supervisors to "live the values they preach" and maintain a "culture of ethics" in the office.

"Managers and supervisors need to reinforce the corporate culture," Latimer says.

"If there is a behavior you don't want exhibited in your staff, it is a behavior that you should not exhibit," she says. "It is very important for management to live up to the values of the corporate culture."


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