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Employee Theft: Legal Aspects - Employee Norms And Employee Theft

formal workers property informal

In time, every work system develops both formal and informal work-group norms that are unique to it. The formal norms comprise the official policies, rules, and procedures; the informal norms emerge as workers seek to adapt the formal norms to their particular work culture and environment. These adaptions often produce subtle, sometimes significant, divergences from the formal norms, and this process is often particularly apparent in the work-group norms on pilfering. Because the formal norms are legalistic, they ordinarily acknowledge only legal forms of property: company and personal. Informal norms, grounded in workers' experience, reflect the full spectrum of property—company, personal, and property of uncertain ownership. The formal norms generally proscribe any form of employee theft or in some instances define what goods and services can be contractually taken (e.g., unusable tools, damaged goods, limited product, personal phone calls). Some contracts also provide a purchase at cost policy to allay workers' desire for the product. The informal norms define what is acceptable behavior as it applies to the taking of property, all types. In general, work-group norms are characterized by the following:

  1. The norms relative to employee theft are situationally specific; those found in one work setting may differ significantly from those in another.
  2. The norms of pilfering are disseminated in the course of worker socialization at work; precept and folklore are prime elements in the transmission of those norms.
  3. Although necessarily vague, the norms delineate the boundaries within which legitimate employee theft may occur.
  4. Legitimated employee theft is bounded by prescriptive and proscriptive definitions of takeable property, modus operandi, the value of pilfered goods, and legitimacy rationales.
  5. An important element in the boundary-establishing process is collusive tolerance by management wherein management, through enforcement, coveys to workers what is acceptable taking and what is not. Workers learn that there is an operational calculus that sets limits to managerial action on pilfering.
  6. Those who operate within these customarily accepted boundaries adopt acceptable modes of action (e.g., open vs. concealed taking); coterminously, they adopt legitimating vocabularies of justification, standards for assessing and limiting their behavior, and strategies for coping with guilt.
  7. Those who operate within the parameters established by the norms receive tacit support of the work group. Those who violate work group norms (e.g., pilfering excessively or openly) are viewed as a threat to the collusive tolerance of management (possibly forcing a redefinition of property or the establishment of new limits). They are not supported by the work group, are viewed as a threat to it, and are often pressured to limit their activities. Often the work group will put pressure on extreme pilferers to limit their behavior.
  8. Workers who inform on pilferers do so at considerable risk from the work group because snitching is considered unacceptable behavior. Even extreme pilferers are accorded this protection.
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