How to Use Psychology to Prevent Theft at Work

CEOs – whenever you hear the word “thief” you may think of someone who is outside your company. Unfortunately, there’s a worrying trend that theft is likely to be done by your very own employees.

Office worker is stealing toilet paper from employer

It’s often difficult to understand why your staffs would do that, but some surveys reveal the trend. Here’s one: Data Label, a company that produces data labels like asset tags and security labels, released a study that reveals the current state of theft at work. The survey is on adults aged over 18, asked this very basic but important question: “Have you ever stolen something from your place of work?” The figure is quite ‘interesting’: 20 percent of the 1,985 respondents admitted that they had stolen from their workplace.

A further exploration reveals the reason behind it: 85 percent of respondents say that they stole because they didn’t think anyone would notice. 8 percent even stated that they did so because they thought they deserve more than they received.

Perhaps the most worrying finding is this: 17 percent of respondents say that although they haven’t stolen anything, they would consider stealing from their workplace, simply because stealing small supplies like stationary wouldn’t matter much, and would go unnoticed, anyway.

Whether you like it or not, those are the trend right now. So, what you can do as a CEO to prevent it from happening?

Well, there’s not very much that you can do, other than the typicals: Do background/reference checks, communicating guidelines, auditing, etc. However, there’s another way: Subtle things can matter much more than you realize, especially when you use psychology in the process.

Here are some ideas:

1. Kill the thrill

Gary Latham, a renowned researcher, came up with an anti-workplace-theft system that purpose is to “kill the thrill”. Working with a large sawmill management, he installed a library system where employees could use the same equipment for personal use anytime. This will, well, “kill the thrill” because it’s no fun to steal something that they can use it for free – it doesn’t earn you “cool point” or prestige.

2. Return the stolen goods and go unpunished

Also implemented by Latham, the sawmill management created a policy that let employees return missing equipment without fear of punishment or disciplinary actions. This results in huge amount of stolen equipment and materials returned to the company. A win-win solution, indeed.

3. Zero-tolerance for employee theft

Studies reveal that the more employees believe that they will be caught stealing, the less likely they are to steal. This is simply natural human behavior. Adopt no-nonsense approach to theft, and make sure your staffs know your zero-tolerance policy.

4. Lead by example

This is yet another natural human behavior: People will follow the leaders’ action. If you, the CEO, show your integrity, your staffs will likely to map their behavior at work with yours.

With that said, your management team members also need to lead by example; your managers also need to be role models.

5. Treat employees fairly and with respect

Another research, the one conducted by Jerald Greenberg, reveals that employee theft happens due to the employees’ desire to “get even” with the managers who treat them badly. Giving your subordinates bad explanations, treat them unfairly, underpay them and ‘bully’ them are some of the actions that will cause employees to take revenge, most likely by stealing from the company to get even.

How to prevent that? Make clear that theft is unethical and develop an employee ethics program in your company.


Ethics and integrity are proven to be crucial for any organizations. That’s why psychological approaches to employee theft prevention may give better results. Combining those approaches with other preventive measures, such as installing CCTV, adopting access control system, etc. can help your company in a great way.


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