Employee Theft: Gravy, Gratis and Gotcha

Petty Adds Up to Plenty

Hamburgers grilled outside can sure taste good. But I doubt that even the great outdoors could do much for cases of frozen patties that left a fast food restaurant by the back door. Employee theft — money, supplies, hamburgers, whatever — is not just wrong, it’s harmful to the well-being of all employees.

White-collar workplaces sometimes suffer from the naive belief that all this concern about employee theft is for low wage workers. Not so. It’s just that it’s impossible to add up all the theft that occurs in workplaces unaccustomed to taking measurement.

Where there are numbers — in low wage industries — it is acknowledged that there is a lot of stealing going on. According to Chain Store Age, employee theft exceeds $18 billion annually in the United States and that’s just cash and merchandise, the customary targets of low wage thieves.

Typically, the object is simply to conceal cash or merchandise and get it out the door without being caught. The method of operation varies surprisingly widely, but usually involves direct methods of pocketing cash or bagging merchandise to be passed to someone who is not an employee, all of which can be accomplished in numerous ways.

But these blunt means don’t cover all the methods employees use to steal. For the more creative thief, there are a variety of other schemes such as credit card fraud and endless kinds of paperwork manipulation including false invoicing, fraudulent vouchers of various sorts, billing and shipping scams and even computer hacking for the nefariously qualified.

The range of theft among low wage workers broadens significantly when you consider other types of things they steal. Things like paid time off under false pretenses, pay for time not worked while on company premises, and medical bills paid through false claims.

If this is beginning to sound more like white-collar crime than low rent thievery, consider that yesterday’s free bagging cashier could be tomorrow’s invoice clerk or office worker. How solid is your white-collar trust, now?

A padded expense account may seem like peanuts but peanuts are measured by the valuable ton on commodities markets. Office supplies? “So, what” helps to keep Staples in business. If it’s true that one crime leads to another, check out the validity of those addresses where checks are mailed every month, month after month.

Managers are hardly immune from temptation to steal. A management employee who made it a habit to take at least two additional days off each month had a long run of free time. He always took Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays and he always left his desk in the disarray characteristic of someone who planned to be back the next morning. It became a habit and he was never challenged about it. Likewise, contract negotiations that result in skimming can lead to other similar arrangements. For years.

Abuse of company assets, the kind that only white-collar workers can access, can build a room onto your house, arrange a vacation or sock away retirement savings. If proceeds must be hidden, safe deposit boxes may be a little risky now, although they were stuffed years ago; still, there are ways.

Bonuses are a prime example, far from the grasp of the most enterprising low wage thief. Bonuses presumably reflect a job well done and are paid in dollars derived from that well done job. Or from arrangements that make it look as if the job was well done. Occasionally, some of these arrangements come into public view through spectacular, if ineffectual, headlines serving to encourage other thieves. Getting by is a prelude to getting off (including the sexual innuendo) in the Horatio Alger hierarchy of successful larceny. This is the level where underfunded and legally outgunned G-men and women do battle, often ineffectually, against the forces of evil.

But most white-collar thieves are content with inconspicuous results, the easier to hide under the less is more doctrine of plundering slowly and quietly. Audits were presumably designed, if ineffectually, to combat these criminals. But some audits suffer from decrepitude while others serve the interests of top management in unanticipated ways.

For now, life in the white-collar workplace seems to roll on, while in the low wage workplace, employers combat thievery with blunt force, bag searches, locker inspections, cameras, software, interrogations and deception. But if you believe it ends there, the joke is on you, white-collar workers, because some of your workplaces also use bag searches, office searches, cameras, interrogations and deception that may elude your notice. And there’s something more: software that is more sophisticated than you may realize, software that records and analyzes every move you make and when you make it, including trips to the restroom and keyboard strokes, not to mention phone calls. It’s enough to question whether fighting crime can be criminal.

in the public domain by Michael Driver

Follow on Twitter: @mdMichaelDriver

Michael Driver is author of Own Your Employment: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century Workers available almost for free on AMAZON.