Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Why do some people steal office supplies?

We’ve all had colleagues who don’t think twice before taking home pens, post-its and staple pins from the office. Most of this pilfering is intentional and involves small items. But, when people start taking home things like notebooks, tea bags, coffee mugs, pen stands and staplers, it does make you sit up and take notice.

According to a recent article on The Conversation, an independent, not-for-profit media outlet, psychologists believe an employee indulges in such errant or unethical behaviour because he or she was promised certain things —a pay hike, a more flexible schedule or even more holidays during the year. When these expectations are not met, the employee feels it is acceptable to take things from office—to make up for what is “rightfully his/hers".

This is not kleptomania

However, this stealing, though often of small, almost insignificant stuff, is different from kleptomania, which is a recurrent urge to steal, typically without regard for need or profit. “The stealing at work is mainly for the cause of showing dissatisfaction. The person here is fully aware of what he or she is doing, and yet continues to do it because he feels wronged by the employers or by the situation he is in," says Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist and head, mental health, Fortis Healthcare, Delhi.

Alok Ranjan, chief executive officer of HR firm Flipcarbon, says when employees see someone behaving like this, they might also do the same. According to him, creating a sense of belonging for employees is important, because no one steals from their own pockets.

“This will only come when there is awareness and appreciation of the things supplied by the workplace. But it is also important for managers to show that they trust their employees. Many companies worldwide keep an array of objects for employees to use. And they trust them to not steal. And in most cases, the employees respect that," he adds.

Chhibber explains the disconnect further. “Most individuals seek more than just the task they are supposed to perform at their workplace in the role assigned to them. In a situation where things are not in accordance with the role which was assigned to them, it can create a disconnect between the individual and the psychological contract he has with the organization he is employed at," she says. This disconnect can disrupt the performance of the individual and he may feel disengaged from the ethos, culture, vision and goals of the organization.

According to Soumyatanu Mukherjee, assistant professor, economics area, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kozhikode, there are two categories of “unhappy" employees: Those in the first category concentrate on fulfilling their duties in a more immaculate way to minimize the possibility of further criticism. Such employees are able to realize the ethical values and economic importance of their duties. The second category comprises people who “develop a sense of taking revenge against the organization itself, and become so much focused on maligning it that they divert themselves from performing even their preliminary duties", he says.

Maybe stationery is something too commonplace to actually worry about. Most people have taken a pen or two home. But according to Meenu Singh, managing consultant, life sciences, Korn Ferry Futurestep, India (an internet venture aimed at helping mid-managemhent candidates to find suitable positions), this reveals some deeper issues. First, it shows a lack of ownership and sense of belonging to the workplace, which may eventually manifest itself in bigger, more damaging ways. On the employee’s part, this could mean a low engagement level and a superficial degree of involvement. Second, Singh says, this could also lead to a general lack of integrity towards goals and objectives, especially those that require the employee to go beyond average performance and truly excel in their roles."

The way ahead

While confronting employees is not a great idea, start by asking if there is something bothering them. “The anger (in the employee) is pent up and it needs an outlet, and so they end up doing these silly things. It is the same immature behaviour we see in children who throw tantrums after being denied a second helping of ice cream or are not allowed to go out and play," says Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder of staffing firm TeamLease. The victim mentality—where employees feel that no one is listening to them or that they have been wronged—lies at the bottom of this behaviour. Chakraborty says the responsibility to have a conversation rests with both the employee as well as the manager.

In fact, the other employees should also participate in this process. “Instead of directly complaining to the management at the first instance, they should talk to the concerned colleague, open up a friendly discussion, and therefore try to help him/her to realize his/her value to company. Reporting to the management or employer should be taken as the last option," says Mukherjee.

Employee engagement becomes all the more important in such a situation. While you can always keep stationery under lock and key, and keep a person in charge (with a formal requisition for new pens and notebooks), it will not solve the problem of employee disengagement. Drive ownership and engagement in employees through reiteration of the “bigger picture" in terms of how employees individually contribute towards achievement of larger goals and objectives of the organization as a whole, says Singh.

Keeping communication channels open while trying to engage and build a sense of ownership in employees is vital. It is always better to have an awkward conversation now, than when it is too late. After all, even a small set of disengaged employees can have damaging consequences for the morale of the team.

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Photo: iStock

Have a conversation

While it may not always be possible to ascertain if an employee is stealing, non-verbal cues can tell you if he/ she is disengaged with the workplace: There might be a tone of sarcasm while talking about work. He/she might have a harsher reaction to feedback and criticism and might not come forward with new ideas or pitches during meetings.

Do this

Confronting in such a scenario will only estrange them further. If the purpose is to get them to feel more involved, do not use a passive-aggressive tone. Instead have a conversation and try to understand the reason behind it.

If you cannot provide support to the employee, try to involve a counsellor or mentor for this. Most people though do not like the idea of going for therapy, so tread with caution.

—Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist and head, mental health, Fortis Healthcare, Delhi.

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