Nearly any employee may be willing to steal from their companies in some situations

September 03, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new study suggests that nearly any worker may be willing to steal from an employer under some circumstances -- unless the company makes clear that theft is unethical.

In the study, workers for a large financial services firm had the opportunity to steal a small amount of money after participating in an after-hours project for which they were grossly underpaid.

Many employees ranked at a normal level of moral development for adults - suggesting they generally felt a duty to follow societal rules -- were willing to steal, but only if their office didn't have an employee ethics program, the study found.

Workers at a lower level of moral development stole from the company regardless of whether there was an ethics program or not, said Jerald Greenberg, a professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

However, nearly no employees were willing to steal if they thought the money came from the pockets of their managers, and not the company.

The results suggest that ethics programs can help prevent employee theft, but only among workers already predisposed to honesty, according to Greenberg.

"An ethics program generally has the most impact on employees who were the least likely to steal in the first place," he said. "But if a company doesn't have an ethics program, even the generally moral employees will be sometimes tempted to steal."

Greenberg's study appears in the September 2002 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The study involved an experiment with 270 customer service representatives of a large company with offices throughout the United States. About half worked at a location in which an ethics program was in place. Among other things, this program included training that carefully defined and warned employees about theft from the company. The others were in an office in a different city that had no ethics program.

The employees volunteered to participate in a one-hour survey after normal work hours in which they were promised "fair compensation" for their time, although they weren't told exactly what they would be paid.

The survey itself was a ruse and the questions had nothing to do with the actual study. After they completed the survey, the participants were told they would be paid just $2 for their time. Greenberg said they were purposely given a small amount that would seem like "a gross underpayment for their time." (The participants earned an average of nearly $10 an hour.)

The participants were then left alone in a room and told to take their payment from a bowl of pennies left on a table. They were led to believe that no one knew exactly how many pennies were in the bowl.

While this may seem like an artificial setup, Greenberg said the employees were used to seeing such bowls of pennies around the office: the company used them as part of a regular training exercise concerning budget allocations.

After the participants left the room, the researchers counted how much money the employees had actually taken.

Of the 270 employees involved in the study, nearly half (130) engaged in theft by taking more than 200 pennies. The average amount stolen was small - about 20 cents. Findings showed that the two factors that determined whether, and how much, the employees stole were the workers' level of moral development, and whether they worked at a location that had an ethics program.

Several months before the study, the employees completed a standard, well-accepted measure of moral development, indicating how ethical they might act. They were then classified as conventional (having normal moral development for an adult) or preconventional (not reaching standard moral development for adults). At the preconventional stage, people generally follow rules because they fear authority and want to avoid punishment.

At the conventional stage, people believe they have a duty to follow the rules and laws of society, regardless of punishment. Findings showed 188 employees at the conventional stage and 82 at the preconventional stage.

In general, employees at a conventional level of morality stole less (an average of 5.71 cents) than those who were preconventional (an average of 10.52 cents). Employees who had undergone an ethics program stole less (6.24 cents) than those who did not (9.99 cents).

The people who were least likely to steal - and who took the least money - were those who were of conventional morality and who worked at offices with ethics programs.

However, in the office with no ethics program, employees at the conventional morality stage stole on average about the same amount as those at the preconventional stage.

Workers at the preconventional stage of moral development stole about the same amount regardless of whether they had participated in an ethics program.

There was one more twist to the study: In some cases, participants were told the money for their payment came not from the company, but from the company managers who were coordinating the survey. In this case, nearly no one stole any money - regardless of levels of moral development and whether there was an ethics program at the office.

"When participants thought they would be stealing from an individual - a person just like them - the norms against stealing were so strong that nearly no one took extra money," Greenberg said. "But when they thought they were stealing from the company, then levels of moral development and ethics programs played a strong role in whether they stole."

While the amounts stolen in this study were small, Greenberg said they are not insignificant in a real-world sense. The results could apply to the everyday theft of things like office supplies that commonly occurs at companies.

"When you add it all up, the theft of even small items can be very costly to organizations," he said. Some estimates put the cost of internal fraud, including employee theft, at about $400 billion a year for American companies.

Why would people of normal moral development be willing to steal from their companies? Greenberg said one reason is that they felt wronged by the company for the perceived underpayment. "They felt they were victimized. But they probably also thought they weren't hurting individuals - they were just hurting a faceless company."

The benefit of the ethics program was that it made these normally moral employees face the fact that stealing from the company was wrong, according to Greenberg.

"The fact that normal, everyday people - not criminals or people with low moral development - are willing to steal from their company under some situations suggests that ethics is a real issue that should concern all organizations," he said.

The results should alert companies that an ethics program can make a difference, if only for some employees.

"Ethics programs are going to have a limited impact," he said.

"Companies shouldn't get rid of them, but they also shouldn't expect them to be a cure-all for all employee theft."
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Ohio State University

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