Reasons for Theft in the Workplace: What It Has in Common with Hoarding Behavior (Part I in a Series)

John is a commission-based salesperson who has his monthly sales expenses deducted from his commissions. These expenses include telephone expenses. One day he was called into the boss’s office, worried that the boss had discovered that he had made a couple of personal phone calls to relatives which were not actually sales calls.

Margie’s job involves preparing hundreds of folders and pen packets to be distributed to participants at various seminars. Margie feels guilty that she took a few folders and pens home for her own personal use.

Fatima is a maid. She regularly helps herself to things she finds in her employer’s workplace. She takes perfume out of bottles and puts it into other containers to take home. She uses her employer’s lipstick and makeup, and sometimes takes it. Sometimes she takes a tube of toothpaste or bottle of deodorant if she finds her employer has extra in a cupboard. She also makes long-distance phone calls on the employer’s telephone without asking. When confronted about these things, she says she feels embarrassed, but continues to do it. She feels entitled to these things, and doesn’t feel guilty at all. She has been fired from several past employers for such behavior.

The above three cases involve the same kind of feeling we get when finding a coin, or bill of money, lying on the ground. We pick it up with unexpected pleasure, like a treasure. When we find some unguarded resources sitting around in a public place, sometimes we decide to help ourselves, even though we know that they belong to someone. (Even magazine articles have suggested taking some blocks from a local construction site to make some simple bookshelves at home with boards.) Most people feel a little guilty when taking such resources, and wonder if money found on the ground should be returned to someone; yet, at the same time, have an equal small feeling of satisfaction at finding a small treasure.

Tom is a quite well-to-do property investor. In his personal life, he has owned four successively-larger houses during different marriages. He likes to accumulate many things. He started out by collecting watches and fine clothes, and moved on to collecting fishing paraphernalia and guns. He now has a hobby of making his own ammunition and has a collection of over 3,000 guns. In spite of living in a 5,000 sq. ft. home, he has often had to rent multiple storage lockers for extra space. This is a case of being in the middle of the continuum–normal hoarding by someone with the financial means, and without a disorder, that has gone overboard enough to interfere with his life, but who is still able to provide space for all his posessions. He derives satisfaction from his hoard, but also feels the burden of caring for it.

Gabriel has a government position in a central African country and helps himself to public funds. He takes whatever he can and sends the funds to foreign bank accounts in case anything should happen. This is a type of having access to money resources (like finding a treasure) and hoarding it for oneself.

Graft and corruption in government is usually a result of three factors. First, if the prevailing morality in society is “don’t get caught,” rather than “don’t do it,” then the attitude that it is all right to take advantage of opportunities to cheat or steal will be pervasive all the way from small preschool children to adult government officials. Secondly, good procedures and public reporting of such need to be in place to watch and account for public money. Thirdly, WHO is DOING the watching and accounting? Are the foxes guarding the hen houses? Societies with a free press generally are able to better fulfill this guardian role.

What do all these people have in common with extreme hoarders? Scavenging for useful objects is a valuable human characteristic, in any environment (think about television series such as Island, with Bear Grylls, or the Ed Stafford’s Naked and Marooned documentary series).

Wild and stray animals in the city exhibit the same scavenging behavior. It’s much easier for them to get into a house or garage through a pet door or screen and eat the pet food, or the food left on unwashed plates, than it is for them to catch their own food. Garbage cans in the neighborhood are also useful for animals (and homeless people). These are further cases of looking for useful resources in the environment.

So why do people steal resources from the workplace? It’s almost like a treasure trove of unguarded resources. Even people who try to be honest find themselves tempted by small items and feel guilty about it afterward. The nasty ones take whatever they can find and feel n,o guilt whatsoever. This collecting of unguarded useful resources and pile them up for oneself is a useful survival characteristic, for both humans and animals, that can become theft in the workplace, and graft and corruption in government. Perhaps the better question is actually, “How is it that the great majority of people are capable of resisting this behavior, of stealing from the workplace?”

What we can conclude is that to stop theft in the workplace, opportunityneeds to be reduced, resources need to be guarded, and good accounting and inventory procedures that are actually followed through on need to be put in place.

What do stealing office supplies and extreme hoarding have in common? They are two manifestations of a similar behavior at different ends of the same continuum line. One end of the spectrum is merely gathering useful resources; further toward the middle becomes obsessive graft, corruption, entitlement; still further becomes people obsessed with saving things which don’t even seem useful to others. Their behavior is confusing to others, and obsessive to the hoarder himself, as it consumes his life.

Hoarding itself is not an either/or proposition; it is a natural outgrowth of finding useful things in one’s environment, and the pleasure in making use of them. Yesterday’s “gatherer from nature” is today’s “shopper.” Normal shoppers are still in the normal spectrum of the continuum, unless they become obsessive shoppers.

What makes gathering turn into hoarding is when something goes wrong. This appears to be something gone wrong genetically, but generally environmentally triggered by stressful events, as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder seems to be).

While some people go over the brink and more or less become mentally ill due to hoarding disorder, others start down the road to hoarding but are able to pull back from it once they realize what is happening. These people are still somewhat in the middle of the continuum.

The next post in this series will explain why hoarders are resistant to getting rid of their hoards, and what needs their hoards are fulfilling for them.