From employees making away with the odd pen or pack of Post-It notes, workplace theft costs Australian employers millions of dollars every year. Workplace pilfering is a fairly common problem, and employees often steal toilet paper rolls, stationery, and light bulbs. One workplace we attended had a recurring problem with teaspoons being taken, including the one chained to the coffee machine! While the act may appear strange and seemingly harmless, the problem is deep and has far-reaching financial implications.

What is workplace theft?

Lack of job satisfaction, boredom, lack of engagement, financial troubles, and substance addictions are just a few reasons why employees indulge in office theft. According to Australian Federal Police numbers, this behaviour is costing Australia approximately 1.5 billion dollars every year, with retailers losing about $750 million due to employee theft in 2018.

Industry experts cite work-from-home as one of the possible reasons for the increase in office theft. Millions of people have been driven to work from home, which could be one of the reasons for the rise in theft incidents. While taking a notepad may not seem like a good deal, an Apple iPad or a laptop is worth much more. Similarly, office supply closets get raided when schools reopen, and workers often request gadget replacements whenever Apple releases a more modern version of their phones or computers.

Employees are aware that the gadgets will be replaced with no questions asked. Yannick Griep, Professor of Industrial and Corporate Psychology, suggests that employees may also be driven to take what they perceive as rightfully theirs when their employer breaks a psychological contract with them; for example, when they don’t receive a promised bonus, leave period, or raise. Employees may indulge in such behaviours as retaliation, as negative emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment may drive the urge to get even with their employer.

Interestingly, Griep, in his paper titled The slippery slope: how smaller transgressions pave the way for larger future transgressions explains that it’s often high-performing employees who are likely to indulge in such behaviours as they expect to be treated more fairly.

The Australian Institute for Criminology reports that only roughly one in 17 cases is reported to the police. They also suggest that the actual numbers may be much higher as many workplace thefts go undetected. Even when the employer catches an employee in the act, they often refrain from reporting the issue to the police.

Can you fire an employee for stealing?

According to the Fair Work Act of 2009, office theft is considered serious misconduct. However, the offence does not always result in summary dismissal.  Employers should always consider conducting an impartial and in-depth investigation into the matter before dismissing the employee. Unfair dismissal may result in legal repercussions and fines. The best strategy is to hire professional licensed investigators who will be able to assess the situation in question and determine the best course of action. The employer should ensure the investigation is consistent, fair and unbiased, and they may need to stand down the employee with pay. In the absence of a fair investigation, the employee may successfully file an unfair dismissal suit.

The employer’s response also depends on the nature of the offence. An employee stealing a box of coffee, for instance, may merit a verbal remonstration. A senior employee should not be treated with more or less favourable treatment than a junior employee. Employers may not be legally entitled to deduct the amount of the stolen goods from an employee’s salary.

If the police convict the employee in a more serious situation, the employer can seek compensation from the court.

What employers can do to discourage theft

Workplace thefts may occur in a wide range of environments and across employee hierarchies. The following are some of the steps employers may take to avoid this:

  • Implement strict no-theft policies and educate your employees about potential consequences.
  • Encourage anonymous reporting of thefts or fraud.
  • Install video surveillance of the areas where theft is most likely to occur (such as the supply room, etc.).
  • Ensure that access to confidential information, cash registers, or software accounting systems is strictly through passwords.
  • Conduct background checks and investigations before hiring a new employee.

Recurring workplace theft can result in enormous losses if not checked. Hiring professional licensed investigators like ESN can help find a solution to the problem. Please get in touch with our highly qualified consultants for assistance with conflict resolution, harassment, misconduct, and other disciplinary issues.

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