CITYWIDE — Most people will get on board with the idea that stealing is bad.

It’s written into rule books, laws, even engraved on stone tablets if you believe in that kind of thing, and certainly nobody wants to be stolen from.

But theft happens at unexpected times, and it can cost businesses a lot of dough.

That postage stamp you grabbed from the mailroom in the office to send off a last-minute “Get Well” card. The stash of ballpoint pens that found their way into your purse because you kept forgetting you’d grabbed one.

The amount of work time you spend watching ridiculous YouTube videos, or scrolling around Reddit’s cute animals page.

People may not feel guilty about the liberties taken around the office until things get egregious.

According to the National Retail Federation, 43 percent of total losses in the retail industry in 2010 resulted from employee theft, and a 2008 study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that at least a quarter of all respondents found that theft of company-owned items like office supplies, products and electronic equipment had risen as a result of the recession.

Jessica Lobelli certainly doesn’t think of herself as a thief.

The 37-year-old Santa Monica resident does a lot of work at home, and often runs out of folders and other basic office supplies, stock which she very occasionally refreshes with supplies from her office.

Over the last seven years with her company, Lobelli estimates she has taken 10 pens, 20 folders and between 10 and 20 binder clips.

She feels it’s an insignificant amount compared to the bulk shipments from Staples that her company orders, and suspects that her coworkers probably do something similar.

It’s not as bad, say, as the city of Santa Monica employee that admitted in a court deposition last year that he had kept cars at his workplace, dumped large amounts of broken concrete in the trash there and had even buried a beloved pet on the premises.

It all comes down to different levels of the same thing, said David Whitney, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at California State University at Long Beach.

“When we’re at work, there’s a belief of things that we’re going to provide the organization and what the organization will provide to us,” Whitney said. “Part of that is the written contract, what we do for them and what they’ll do in exchange. There’s a psychological contract that goes along with that as well.”

That second contract never sees the light of day nor the touch of a human resources pen. It’s all in the employee’s head, but the worker believes that the organization has agreed to it as a matter of course.

“It’s one of those things that people feel is the norm,” Whitney said. “I’ll borrow more pens than I need feeling that it’s the norm, an expected cost of business.”

Depending on the person, things can remain tame until the employer crosses an invisible line and breaks the contract he or she never knew was there.

Perhaps the worker hasn’t had a raise in three years and don’t feel they have to work as hard, or that it’s OK to take a ream of paper home because “they owe it to me.”

It can escalate up the spectrum of maliciousness, Whitney said.

“They’re victimizing the organization to get out their frustrations,” Whitney said. “They feel that they’ve been wronged, so they want to get back at the organization.”

That perception can add up to a lot — $14.4 billion for retailers alone in 2010, according to the National Retail Federation.

The best way to diffuse that tension and the desire to extract from an employer is to make sure an employee never has the opportunity to feel slighted.

Rather than placing themselves at the feet of their own workforce, employers can accomplish that by creating a clear set of rules and enforcement, said Al Mohajerian, head of Mohajerian, Inc., a law firm that represents only employers.

That means having an employment manual that spells out all of those little things that many people take for granted, like not visiting pornography sites while on the job or stretching lunch and other breaks past the point of reason.

There’s a fear amongst employers that cracking down on “common” practices will open themselves up to retribution, Mohajerian said.

“You don’t want to have friction with them because the person is inside your home,” Mohajerian said. “They could kick a computer, crash a disk, put a virus in your computer. Cause a lot of problems … Employers walk on eggshells sometimes, especially with employees that they consider litigious.”

When it comes to blatant theft of products, there’s only one real solution.

“Call the cops,” Mohajerian said.

Cameras deterred Jennifer Campos, a 23-year-old resident of Koreatown, from taking anything from a record store she worked for six years ago.

Now, she works at her family’s hot dog food truck, Campos Deliciosos, and any temptation at thievery is gone.

There’s no limit to the number of hot dogs, sodas or chips she can eat, although she rarely takes advantage of it, she said.

Part of that comes from the idea that the organization Campos works for has a name — Mom and Dad — rather than existing in her mind only as a faceless corporation, Whitney said.

Otherwise, it can be a question of integrity.

“The integrity aspect is individualized,” Whitney said. “It’s hard to believe that someone didn’t know it was wrong to dump concrete in the dumpster.”

Samantha Masunaga contributed to this report.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *