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Employee Theft: Behavioral Aspects - Characteristics Of The Employee Thief

job systems steal workers

Empirical research on employee theft reveals that it is the rare employee who does not pilfer something during the course of a work career. What differs for all but that rare employee, however, is the frequency of theft and the value of the goods taken: some steal often, others almost never steal; some steal goods having considerable value, others confine their behavior to items that have little or no value. Although any given episode of employee theft may involve seemingly insignificant amounts, the cumulative effect over time may be considerable.

Numerous attempts have been made to describe the typical employee thief. Many experts in security management have developed profiles that describe the prototypical employee thief: male, either young or older (competing data support either conclusion), has a financial problem stemming from gambling, drinking, drugs, or other equally costly excesses such as an expensive hobby or poor financial management (e.g., credit card problems). Although these descriptions may apply to those workers who are high incident/high value thieves, they are not particularly useful when one considers that only a few workers (normally less than 5 percent) steal with the intent to convert the goods to money. Most workers take only for personal use (Altheide et al; Greenberg; Hollinger and Clark; Horning; Terris).

Nonwork-related correlates. Many of the standard demographic variables—such as age, sex, race, education, religious affiliation, religiosity, residential mobility, number of dependents, size of community, marital status, marital stability, and home ownership—which play an important role in differentiating behavior in other forms of crime do not appear to have much predictive value in the case of employee theft. The evidence is often contradictory. However, some nonwork-related correlates, such as erratic personal and job history, poor credit ratings resulting from fiscal mismanagement, difficulty in getting along with others, a history of dismissal for employee theft and alcohol and drug abuse, do appear to be strongly associated with a high risk of employee theft. When all of the evidence is considered, one must conclude that in general most nonwork-related factors, taken separately, are not particularly useful in predicting either the incidence of an employee theft or the amount that the employee will steal (Altheide et al.; Baker and Westin; Greenberg; Hollinger and Clark; Horning; Terris).

Work-related correlates. Many factors in the work setting may have a bearing on the frequency and cost of employee theft.

Type of work system. Although all work systems have elements in common, each provides a unique configuration of opportunity and pilferability to its employees. Offices, mines, mills, factories, farms, hospitals, warehouses, retail stores, food processing plants, road construction businesses, and foundries have many elements in common, but more notable are the differences that shape the opportunity for pilfering from each. Some are generally low access/low opportunity systems with few pilferable items (e.g., mines or well-drilling operations), others are high access/high opportunity systems with necessarily minimal goods control (e.g., hospitals that have a high disposability factor for supplies). Compounding this is the great variability that exists within similar work systems (e.g., medical offices) that differ in scale, organizational structure, managerial philosophy, levels of technology, and levels of control and security. Add to these the specific elements of each organization's work subculture, which defines and sets parameters within which employee theft occurs, and one can see why measurement, prediction, and generalization are difficult.

Thus, to fully understand employee theft it is necessary first to acknowledge the importance of variations in work systems, and second, to recognize the role that individual work subcultures play in defining what constitutes theft in a specific organization.

Job classification and job skills. A national survey of internal company theft reported in 1982 that whereas executive level employees committed only 15 percent of the theft they were responsible for 85 percent of the total dollar loss. So, while it is true that most thefts are committed by workers such as clerks, delivery personnel, warehouse and sales personnel, and office and assembly workers, their activities account for only a small portion of the total amount pilfered. Normally, control efforts are directed at these more numerous but aggregately less costly thieves. Those in executive positions are generally considered to occupy positions of trust and less needful of security controls, but they are also the ones whose pilfering leads to substantially greater aggregate loss.

Length of service with the employer. Conventional wisdom argues that length of service can be both a positive and negative factor in employee theft. Research supports both perspectives. Length of service can be a deterrent to employee theft, where loyalty and the cost of job loss enter into the equation. Conversely, the longer one is employed, the greater one's knowledge about work practices, work norms, opportunity structures, and security systems, which can increase the likelihood of theft. The data on the importance of length of service is conflicting.

Level of job satisfaction. Many authorities contend that a satisfied employee is less likely to pilfer than a dissatisfied one. Although this is generally true, there are many types of satisfaction and these seem to have a differential effect. Dissatisfaction with one's supervisor or job does not appear to have a significant effect on employee theft; dissatisfaction with the work organization does. Generally, the greater the satisfaction with the work organization, the lower the level of employee theft (Altheide et al.; Baker and Westin; Greenberg; Hollinger and Clark; Horning; Terris; Traub).

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