Staff steal from work, not managers

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Impersonal, unethical offices are at most risk from employee theft.

US Staff steal about $400 million per year from work Credit: © Getty Images

Staff are more likely to steal from a faceless corporation than from an individual manager, a US psychologist has demonstrated. Employers can cut workplace pilfering by setting a good example and training people.

Jerald Greenberg of Ohio State University in Columbus asked 270 customer-service workers from a large US company to spend an hour outside their normal working time filling in a questionnaire. He then provoked them by paying each a measly $2 for their trouble.

Participants could help themselves to their payment from a bowl of pennies. About half chose to top up their earnings illicitly, by an average of 20 cents.

But almost no one took extra cash if they were told beforehand that the money belonged to the company's managers, rather than the company itself.

“If people are cheating and conniving at the top, they'll cheat and connive at the bottom Joshua Bamfield , Centre for”

Small amounts add up - Greenberg compares it to stealing office supplies. From petty theft to large-scale embezzlement, US workers are estimate to relieve their companies of about $400 million per year.

Greenberg found less theft in offices with an ethics policy, where staff had been trained about the consequences of theft for the company and themselves. But ethical training had less effect on those who ranked below average in a test of moral development.

Companies can cut crime by encouraging employees to work out their ethical position, and by emphasizing the impact of their behaviour, agrees Joshua Bamfield a specialist on theft at the Centre for Retail Research in Nottingham, UK. But he doubts that ethics policies in themselves make much difference.

Employee theft is the result of a complex combination of opportunity, fear of getting caught, greed and financial need, says Bamfield. Company culture also matters: "If people are cheating and conniving at the top, they'll cheat and connive at the bottom."

Some harsh employers scare their workforce into honesty. "It's not necessarily the case that if you're a good employer, people won't steal from you."


  1. 1

    Greenberg, J. Who stole the money, and when? Individual and situational determinants of employee theft. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 89, 985 - 1003, (2002).

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Centre for Retail Research Nottingham, UK

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Whitfield, J. Staff steal from work, not managers. Nature (2002) doi:10.1038/news020902-3

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