Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
As employees have been returning to their offices, they’re rediscovering messy workplace kitchens, co-workers who blast communal spaces with stifling fragrances, colleagues who play music without headphones … and now, the ancient, yet-to-be-solved problem of workplace thefts.
You’d like to think that you can trust the people you work with all day—that co-workers who know you by name, hear about your kids, and trade jokes with you before meetings wouldn’t brazenly steal items that clearly belong to you. But in reality—at least judging from my mail—it appears that a shockingly high number of petty thieves walk among us.
Some of the purloined items are surprisingly, almost humorously mundane. Here are some of the things people have written to me about:
• “Someone in the office stole a co-worker’s mug! He had left it on the counter while he went to the bathroom before he got his coffee and it was gone when he came back. TWO YEARS LATER, he found it soaking in the sink after the thief had used it. He promptly ‘stole’ it back. He was very excited.”
• “I have a Bath and Body eucalyptus (mini) hand sanitizer next to my computer. Turns out someone has used it up, then refilled it with water so it wouldn’t look like it was used. It costs a buck.”
• “I had someone steal my Pyrex dish once. They dumped my lunch out into a little baggie, put that back in the fridge, and stole my dang dish. WHO DOES THAT!?”
• “I attached my chair to my desk with a dog leash because people kept stealing it to use in the conference room next door.”
But sometimes, the thefts are of more expensive or sentimental items, and are more upsetting:
• “At my last company, people had their winter boots stolen—and since we’re in New England, there were a lot of expensive winter boots. To avoid having them looted, people started wearing them all day instead of changing to regular shoes, which management said was unprofessional even though we’re not customer-facing. People protested taking them off because they didn’t want them stolen. It was a mess.”
• “I work in a small regional branch of a national company. We were asked to bring in lots of personal items to make our work areas more welcoming. … We returned from Thanksgiving break to find everyone’s cubicles rearranged, with all of our personal items in boxes, and many items were missing. Most things were there, and there was lots of exchanging, but my grandfather’s little cast-iron caboose was gone. I was sorry to lose it, but I was sure it would turn up.
Well, it just did. My best friend from high school was invited to the annual Independence Day party at the home of his CEO. That CEO is a real railroad buff and showed my high school buddy the cast-iron caboose given to him as a gift last Christmas by my manager—with my grandfather’s initials carved/welded into the bottom.”
Sure, you might suggest that people just not keep objects of deep sentimental value at work, but the reality is that we spend a lot of time there, and so sometimes people do—and workers certainly should be able to trust their own boss not to pinch their property.
Even when a stolen object is easily replaced, it can be disconcerting to realize you can’t trust the people around you, especially when you don’t know who’s to blame:
I work at the front desk. I was previously in the habit of leaving my phone charger plugged in at my desk all the time, whether my phone was charging or not, whether I was at my desk or not. Two days ago, I noticed it was gone, and since I use it daily, it probably disappeared around that time. I have no idea who would have taken it. My feelings are hurt and I’m worried now about all my other personal property I bring to work. … I’m pretty upset, maybe disproportionately so, but it’s made me feel unsafe, like I can’t trust my co-workers.
It can get even more disconcerting when the thefts are chronic, indicating a serial offender in your midst:
I worked for a company that had a really sweet office kitchen setup and someone stole the sparkling water maker, cutlery, bulk-size bags of sugar, paper towels, toilet paper, towels, etc. Nothing was ever done about it, but it mysteriously stopped when an after-hours employee quit.
Which brings us to food thefts—a large subcategory without which no discussion of office larceny could be complete. Food thefts plague nearly every workplace; one survey found that one in three workers admit to taking a co-worker’s food without permission. Some of those thefts are relatively small (although still highly annoying to the victim)—a swiped Diet Coke from the office fridge, a squeeze of someone else’s mustard—but some are more harrowing:
• “My old job used to order tons of food for events so they could bring out the leftovers the next day. It was all food that would still be awesome as leftovers, like Mexican, pasta, and BBQ. But then the leftovers started disappearing from the fridge overnight. I’m talking about dozens of catering trays of food being taken by someone going into the office after hours. It got so bad that they installed a lock on the catering fridge to prevent the theft of the food. The lock was broken off and the fridge damaged the first night it was installed. I guess if you’re going to all that trouble to steal food, you aren’t going to let a lock stand in your way.”
• “I once brought some leftover fried chicken in for lunch for me and my husband. Someone went into the box it was in, took a couple pieces, ate them, and then put the bones back in the box, effectively ruining everything that was left with their germ-covered, gnawed-on chicken bones. I’m still mad about that, and it’s been more than 10 years.”
• “My partner put a note on his milk in the fridge that said ‘I drink from the container’ thinking it would stop people from stealing it. He came in the next day to discover half of it was gone and a note taped under his with ‘I do, too!’ and a happy face.”
What possesses someone to steal from co-workers? If the behavior were an outlier, it would be easy to write it off as the province of criminals and sociopaths—but it’s so widespread that there’s clearly more at work. Undoubtedly, part of the explanation is simply that some people behave badly when they believe they won’t get caught. But I’ve got to wonder if some of it is about deeper issues with work. An awful lot of people resent their employers (for all sorts of legitimate reasons, from low pay to overwork to wildly imbalanced power dynamics) and that can beget antisocial behavior. It can make “taking something back for oneself” feel justified, even when it comes at a colleague’s expense.
Maybe that’s reading into it too much, but given how endemic workplace thefts appear to be, I’m not so sure it’s an overstatement. Regardless, if you’re back in the office, keep an eye on your cast-iron cabooses.