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The Psychology Behind Why People Steal Their Coworkers’ Stuff

You spend every day with these people, people who likely would never steal outside of the office. So why is your yogurt always going missing?

The Psychology Behind Why People Steal Their Coworkers’ Stuff
[Photo: Flickr user Michelle Tribe; App Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

It happens in every workplace. You put a sandwich with your name on it in the office refrigerator, but by lunchtime it’s gone. Your stapler mysteriously wanders off in the night. Your cool new headphones vanish from your cubicle never to be seen again.

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There is a paradox here. Most people think of themselves as honest. Yet, many people also commit petty acts of dishonesty. People overbill a little for the work they do. They don’t correct errors in their favor at the store or a restaurant. They grab a donut belonging to someone else from the work fridge. They don’t pay for their coffee in the office kitchen.

A growing number of studies demonstrates the low-level cheating that people do regularly. When there is little chance that someone will get caught and it is easy for people to cheat, they take advantage of situations to some degree. The factors that affect cheating also influence people’s tendency to take things that don’t belong to them.

There are several factors that come together to lead to this (somewhat surprising) behavior.

Short-Term Focus

Human behavior is focused on doing things that feel right in the short term rather than things that feel right in the long term. If you need to eat right now, then available food will feel good to eat, even if it is wrong to take food from someone else.

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This means that people need to be aware that they are prone to compromise their long-term values in the presence of short-term temptations. It can be helpful to put reminders of these long-term values around the office in places where people might be tempted to violate those values. This strategy is similar to one I remember from when I was young. Supermarkets would write “Thou shall not steal” on milk crates that people would often take to use as storage at home.

Ease Of Action

People also tend to do what is easy for them to do in a particular environment. If you leave your new noise-canceling headphones out on your desk in a cubicle farm, you are making it easy for people to give in to the temptation to acquire a new pair of headphones without paying for them.

As a kid, I remember my father telling me that the reason to lock the car door and to keep valuables hidden is to keep the honest people honest. In the moment, an action that is easy to perform can be difficult to overcome. People who are generally honest may still act without thinking deeply about what they are doing.

Cost Of Action

People are also most prone to cheat and to steal when they think nobody is watching. Studies suggest that anywhere between 30% and 60% of participants in a study will take advantage of opportunities to take more money than they deserve for their performance when there is no chance that anyone can track what they have done.

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Studies also suggest that people cheat less and engage in more good behavior in the presence of pictures of eyes that give the sense that people are being watched. In addition, studies of religiosity suggest that some religious people feel as though God is watching them, and so they avoid engaging in bad moral behavior because they feel as though they are being watched.

Psychological Distance

One final factor in play with unethical workplace behavior is distance. Work in construal level theory demonstrates that people think about events that are distant in time and space more abstractly than events that are close by.

Most of us hold abstract values like being honest and virtuous. In specific situations, though, we focus more on our actions than on the implications of those actions for our abstract self-concept. That means that petty acts of dishonesty can coexist with people’s broad beliefs that they are honest.

Ultimately, if we want to decrease small thefts in the workplace, we need to start by making it harder for people to do the wrong thing. Then, we need to increase people’s sense that they are being watched by others. Finally, we want to remind people that their specific actions bear on their general self-concept, so that if people want to maintain their belief that they are generally good people, they have to engage in good actions.

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