What Causes Employees to Steal? | EAPA-SA

Theft in the workplace is more common than most employers think. Employee theft is characterised as any stealing, use or misuse of an employer’s assets without permission. One in four South African companies have indicated that they have been victims of fraud, and theft is not limited to taking place only among the lower echelons of a workforce. People in more senior positions can get away with stealing from their employers for a long time before they get caught. 

Why do employees steal?

Some employees will steal simply because the opportunity is there or because the consequences for theft are minimal. Others may feel wronged by their employer and steal as way to settle the score or may steal because they believe the theft to be no big deal because their employer has insurance against theft and will be compensated. The most common denominators that lead to employee’s stealing are:

  • The item or service is in an area that has unrestricted access
  • The employee believes they are justified in taking the item and is, therefore, not stealing
  • The employee is a thief and pre-disposed to steal

Five different types of employee theft

1. Inventory Theft

Inventory theft occurs when an employee steals products or something tangible. The employee may want the item for their personal use or steal it with the intent to sell it on. 

Security cameras and controls such as locking up expensive items will help discourage potential thieves as well as making it easier to catch employees who steal. To help alleviate employee theft, make employees feel valued, pay them a fair wage and ensure that managers set an example of ethical behaviour with the aim of establishing a workplace culture where employees don’t want or need to steal.


2. Data Theft

Data theft is one of the most troubling types of employee theft, with far-reaching ramifications. Examples of data theft include:

  • Stealing an employer’s trade secrets or proprietary information.
  • Theft of clients’ or other employees’ personally identifiable information, such as credit card information or banking login details.
  • Stealing customer contact lists when leaving the company.

Preventing employee data theft should start with the implementation of strict policies surrounding data access and the use of electronic devices. It is also helpful to build data protection into day-to-day workplace procedures and processes. For example, by guarding against wholesale computer and file access with strong passwords. Access to an organisation’s proprietary information should be restricted and good disposal practices followed by shredding documents and erasing sensitive digital data. It is also a good idea to institute a “clean desk” policy that stipulates that sensitive information is stored out of sight – away from prying eyes.

3. Accounting theft

Accounting theft is when an employee is “cooking the books” to hide the fact that money is going missing.  Background checks should be performed for all staff handling cash or managing payments and bank account information from customers.

The solution is to maintain internal controls, with checks and balances in place that can prevent or detect fraud. This includes restricting access to financial account data, establishing multi-person sign-off protocols on expense reimbursements and other accounting or payroll functions, as well as performing regular audits to ensure the integrity of the books of account.

4. Theft of Services

This type of employee theft can occur in any type of business, wherein one employee provides another person with a saleable service free of charge by deception, force, threat or any other unlawful means. Theft of services is often executed by employees for family and friends. By providing unregulated services or discounts, or failing to report services provided, the employee is stealing supplies, time and labour. 

It is important for management to be clear from the start that stealing services will not be tolerated. Ensure that it is understood by employees that the misuse of company services will be treated as a misdemeanour that results in prompt dismissal. 


5. Theft of Cash

Theft of cash occurs most frequently in cash-heavy businesses such as retail. Examples include:

  • Stealing cash from registers or petty cash drawers
  • Overcharging a customer and pocketing the difference
  • Skimming by not registering a sale or recording a transaction in accounting books and taking the money

Video surveillance cameras are more sophisticated than ever; you can choose cameras that focus narrowly on cash registers or an entire treasury department to capture any activity. Often, just having security cameras visible in place is enough to deter employee cash theft. To deter cash theft, make sure your organisation has clear policies in place and inform employees that any such dishonest acts will be seen as a felony and come with very serious consequences. 


The scourge of time theft – especially when it comes to working remotely  

Time theft in particular is a form of employee theft that’s one of the easiest and least noticeable ways for employees to steal from a company – especially with the rise of remote work. Time theft is much different than employees taking a break. Time theft is when an employee takes pay for work they didn’t do or time they didn’t spend working. 


Here are some examples of time theft:

  • Taking longer breaks:  This becomes an issue when employees are doing this consistently or are regularly taking extra-long breaks – especially without informing their manager.
  • Starting late or finishing early: Employees padding out their hours to appear like they’ve worked a full day is dishonest, despite how few or many times this has happened.
  • Personal activities or use of technology:  Some companies are more lenient than other companies when it comes to things like personal phone calls or social media scrolling. Regardless, any unauthorised personal activities during work hours is another form of time theft.
  • Non-work related socialising during work hours: Socialising with co-workers is not necessarily a bad thing and can be a way to build relationships within a team. However, when a quick watercooler or virtual water cooler conversation turns into a full blown discussion for 30 minutes, this is time theft. 
  • Buddy punching: The term “buddy punching” is used when an employee punches in on their co-worker’s time card. In today’s digital world, this could mean logging in to a co-worker’s time tracking account and starting their clock for them.


Employees respond to consequences

Your workers need to understand that if they are found stealing or committing some type of fraud, their employment will be terminated immediately. Management does not have to run an organisation like a prison camp, but when it comes to theft, employers have to make it abundantly clear through education and the implementation of policies and procedures that theft will not be tolerated – and that there will be no warnings or second chances. 



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