I believe you have my stapler

A dark secret in corporate America is theft. I’m not talking about Enron or Worldcom. I’m talking about the little guy who takes a pen from the supply room, brings it home and uses it to write checks. He is a thief.

I don’t think I would be disappointing anyone who knows me to admit that I have taken office supplies and used them for my own personal use. I have taken a package of Post-It Notes home. I took a binder once. I even took a stapler – because of a supply glitch I had ended up with three in my office. There are even less obvious ways I use company property for my personal use: I print out New York Times articles to read on the subway, using company ink and paper. I call long-distance to my New Jersey home from my New York office.

I have never taken a phone or a computer or anything of significant value, though. So if a thief breaks into your house and steals a roll of paper towels, is he any less a thief than if he steals your TV? Does it matter that I stole Post-Its and not my office HP Laser Printer?

Cynics will tell you that you’re just compensating yourself for being underpaid by taking it back out of the company. I doubt they would say the same if a teenaged babysitter started taking home cleaning supplies from their houses every time she came over. Environmentalists will tell you much of it will be wasted, anyway, so it’s no harm to use it in one place rather than another.

The lengths good people, good citizens, will go to in order to explain how stealing from a Fortune 500 company is somehow “OK” are amazing. That theft cuts into profits and reduces shareholder value – maybe an index fund that you hold dips one-quadrillionth of a point. I wrestle with this myself, but I still don’t stop myself from using the printer in my office to print out an email to read on the train, or a personal flight boarding pass. I don’t think twice about grabbing a work pen and taking it with me at the end of the day.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any thoughts on this? Am I being a prude, or is stealing just stealing no matter what?

3 comments

  • I think it is a little bit prudish. I think that it is really all about intent. If your intent is to absolutely maliciously steal, and steal as much as you can from your company, that is bad.

    If however, you are working on something and you bring it on the train and you have a pen in your hand on the way out the door, I don’t think that is stealing. Especially if you are doing any kind of work at home or outside the office. Same goes for emails etc that are printed out.

    The dollar value is a key factor here. I wouldn’t stress over taking a pen home, but I certainly wouldn’t be pocketing pairs of scissors, staplers, ink cartridges for printers, etc. I think that generally, if it costs more than 1 or 2 bucks, you probably shouldn’t be taking it out of the office.

  • If the babysitter has a grape from the fridge while she’s babysitting for you is that stealing? Is it different than your printing out a copy of the New York Times? As Easychange says the dollar value is the key factor. You wouldn’t care about the missing grape, but you might care if she took your DVD player home. It’s the same principle.

    What about if the company asks you to stay late 5 minutes late to get a report done? If you are on salary, do you say, “Nope, sorry, I’m not getting paid any extra for it, I’m out.” In some cases you might, but most of the time people would say “Sure, no a problem.” In this case, the company is stealing for you, taking your time without giving compensation. Sure they ask you, so you are volunteering. However, if you were to ask your HR person if you can print a copy of the Times on the way home, they’d laugh at you and say “of course.” They’d probably even suggest that everyone do it as it educates their whole workforce – a benefit to the company as a whole.

  • Easychange and Lazy Man, you both have a point. Honestly, I don’t worry too much myself about taking small things, and I doubt the company would either. Dollar value is probably key for most people. The question would be where the cutoff point is… $3? $30?

    There’s definitely a give-and-take between employer and employee, though, and no-one needs to be sitting there keeping a running tally of “minutes kept late” and “pens taken home”. It definitely made me think a little bit more when I started getting paid hourly rather than getting a salary, though, because now my time is compensated minute-for-minute so there’s no ‘extra 5 minutes’ like Lazy Man mentions.