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?