The Lunch Thief: She May Be Someone You Know and Trust

Petty theft at work is often rationalized

By Dana Wilkie October 15, 2015

It’s lunchtime, you open the workplace freezer to reach for your Lean Cuisine pasta, the one that costs $4.99 plus tax, and—it’s not there. 

It’s not in the fridge, either. Or on the counter. Nor in a cupboard. It looks like one of your colleagues—someone you may even like, respect and trustswiped it.

Petty theft at work is common: Employees take food that isn’t theirs, take items from people’s desks or lockers and never return them, and pilfer everything from pens to aprons for personal use. Experts on dishonesty say such thefts are often committed by employees who are otherwise decent people—people who seem trustworthy and respectable.

So how do these employees justify stealing at work? And how can HR put a stop to it?

“The human brain is wired to do things that help us to achieve our goals in the short term rather than doing what is best in the long term,” said Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of a recent article on titled “The Psychology Behind Why People Steal Their Coworkers’ Stuff.” “We often give in to temptations to do something that we know isn’t right, particularly if there is little chance of being caught. Most people don’t engage in elaborate schemes to steal something. That would feel too dishonest. Instead, they do something that is easy to do in the moment—like grabbing a toy off a colleague’s desk or grabbing food from the refrigerator.”

Here are some justifications, he said, that people often use when stealing something at work:

• It’s like the fridge at home—everything’s up for grabs.
• No one’s gonna miss a few pens if I take them home.
• I was ravenous and couldn’t help myself.
• It’s not like I’m taking someone’s money.

Money vs. Soda

What happens when you place five $1 bills on a plate in a workplace refrigerator alongside a six-pack of soda? Three researchers did just that and discovered that by the end of their experiment, five of the sodas were gone, but all the bills remained.

“Taking someone’s money seems to trigger moral standards,” said On Amir, associate professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the researchers. “But when it comes to taking a soda,” he said, some people “don’t think of that as stealing, they think of it as sharing.”

Except for that final soda, he said. “It doesn’t feel like stealing somehow if there are six sodas and you take one. But taking the last one—people felt badly about that.”

Nina Mazar, another of the researchers who is associate professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of Toronto, noted that it would be easier for employees to take a few pennies from a bowl full of coins than to take a dollar bill.

“If you take a few things, it’s easier to say it won’t really harm anybody. But if you take the $1 bill and there are no other bills, that’s much harder” to justify, she said.

In another study by Amir and Mazar, people were given an exam and an answer key, told to grade the exam when done, then told to go into one of two rooms to “pay” themselves based on the number of answers they got correct. In one room, there was money. In another room, there were poker chips that could be exchanged for money.

“The mere fact that you were taking poker chips caused people to take a lot more chips and, consequently, a lot more money, because poker chips don’t feel like money, they feel like a game,” Amir said.

Finally, workplace norms—that is, how the majority of people at work tend to behave—influence theft, Mazar said. In another experiment, she and her colleagues put one six-pack of soda in a workplace fridge alongside one six-pack with a soda missing. People tended to swipe sodas from the pack with one already missing, rather than from the full pack, she said.

“When the pack is full, that action of taking one of the sodas is just so much worse in your moral world,” she said. “It’s like a deliberately bad action. If only one is missing, somebody else has taken one and it must be all right.”

Theft Deterrents

Pricing items seems to be a strong deterrent to theft, Amir said.

“What happens if, in the office supply cabinet, you put the prices of what the supplies cost?” he asked. “If a pencil has a sticker that says 49 cents, would someone be as likely to steal it? Our hypothesis is that they wouldn’t. And if you put a sticker with a price tag on the lunch, that’s probably going to decrease the number of lunch thefts.”

The reason theft would theoretically decrease if workplace items were priced, Mazar said, is because “the more we are removed from money, the more removed we are from seeing the damage we are causing [by stealing]. So you put a price tag on a pencil at work, and now I see that it actually is as if I’m stealing money.”

However, Markman noted that taking office supplies home may be justified in many workers’ minds because “there is an increasingly thin line between work life and home life.

“It doesn’t seem so strange to people to grab some pens, paper and tape for home,” he said. “Even if some of those supplies end up being used for personal reasons, it doesn’t feel like the workplace is that separate from home.”

One study conducted in the U.K. found that workers who were expected to pay for doughnuts through an honor system were less likely to swipe the pastries when they were put next to a sign with a pair of eyes, giving the impression that the workers were being watched, Mazar said.

Other reminders that stealing is wrong can include religious symbols or phrases like “thou shalt not steal,” Markman said. Some firms post an honor code in lunchrooms and supply closets to “force people to confront the conflict between their petty theft and their values.”

Such signs may work for a while, Amir said, but “after people get used to it, they don’t pay attention anymore, so its effectiveness drops over time. You’d have to keep changing things so people do pay attention.”

Studies from the late 1970s indicate that when mirrors were placed near locations where workplace theft occurs, stealing subsided, Amir said.

“When you put people in front of a big mirror, it’s supposed to activate a sense of self-awareness,” he said.

Finally, “people who engage in small acts of dishonesty want to make some reparation for what they have done to maintain their self-image that they are honest people,” Markman said. “Having some charity boxes around where people can make donations to worthy causes can give people an opportunity to pay for their dishonesty. It might not cut down on theft, but at least something good can come of it.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.