Everyday Ethics

supplies.jpgStudies show something like 60% of employees have stolen from the place where they work. Whether it’s something little like a box of paperclips or a Post-It pad, or something big like that awesome ergonomic chair the boss is always swiveling about in or a shiny new laptop, Americans apparently feel little compunction about helping themselves to a little off the top.

Honestly, I really, truly get the temptation. We spend a third of our work-week (minimum!) at the office; for a lot of us it begins to feel a bit like home. Granted, an uncomfy, unpleasant home where we wear stuff we wouldn’t choose to wear and act polite to people we wish we didn’t have to deal with, but still, we feel like we’re invested. And, while we’re there, these items belong to us. The pens, the paper, the rubber bands and stamp-wetters; they’re ours at need.
But once we walk out the door – hey, that’s company property. We all know that good and well. Yet those same studies show only a small percentage of those who steal from the office feel any sense of remorse.
Full disclosure – I’ve taken a pen or two in the past. (Those days are firmly behind me, but I had to get that out there.) Before I get into that story, let me list some of the reasons I think people steal. 

  1. The studies agreed it was mostly younger workers who were likely to help themselves to whatever was at hand. They postulated the reasons might be that these 20 to 24-year-olds aren’t invested in their jobs, but I wondered if they simply hadn’t had their moral compasses firmed up yet. My personal experience tells me I was more likely to help myself to others’ belongings when I was younger not because I wasn’t ‘invested’ in my job but because I was more selfish and unable to see others as as important as myself – especially large corporate entities. I simply wasn’t able to extrapolate. (I was a late moral bloomer.)
  2. Workers who feel under-appreciated are bound to find ways to – ahem – appreciate themselves. When we feel taken advantage of, we naturally – if unethically – feel the desire to even the scales. There’s an undeniable, if petty, satisfaction in muttering “Oh, yeah?” beneath our breath as we stuff rolls of Scotch tape into our pockets after the boss has just gypped us out of our long-awaited bonus or asked us to stay late without proper compensation.
  3. We rationalize “They won’t miss it,” and/or “I need this more than them.”
All three were the case with me when I was just starting out in the workplace. I worked long hours for an unappreciative employer. I got screwed out of a bonus. Just being there made me angry, some days. I thought taking something back would make me feel better, less resentful. I even rationalized I’d do my job better if I felt better compensated. So… I took a roll of tape. And some pens and Post-Its, though I told myself I needed those to do my assignments at home (this was arguably true). But after a while, that attitude of entitlement began to grow (like fungus), until I was feeling it was OK to mail personal items out on the company dime. 
I knew it was wrong. Really, really wrong. And I wanted to make amends, but was scared by that point to ‘fess up. In the end I took my moral code in my own hands and just put in extra hours unpaid until I felt I’d worked off my debt, but I never told my employer what I’d done. (Feel free to argue the ethics of this.) Still, I learned a lesson. Tell yourself it’s okay to let it slide when you do bad things, and pretty soon you’re doing worse things.
These days, I have a new policy. I still love office supplies (as a writer, those pens and notebooks just sing so sweetly to me…). But if I want something, I ask myself, “Do I really need this right now? If so, can I not afford to purchase it on my own?” Finally, if I’d really like my employers to make a gift of it to me, rather than shelling out my own dough, I have a simple solution. I walk up to my lovely, kind-hearted office manager, and ask her if she minds if I take the item home.
If I can’t live with her answer, I have my answer already.

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