How to react to theft at work?
June 12, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

How to react to theft of my personal property at work?

Three weeks ago I started a new job. This morning I took off my earrings before going into a meeting. I put them down in front of my computer screen aligned with the center of my keyboard, making a mental note that I'd done it so I wouldn't forget them.

45 minutes later I got back to my desk and the earrings were gone.

I looked for them, and told most of the department that they were lost and had anyone seen them, with no luck. Retraced my steps, no luck. Asked reception if they'd been handed in, no luck.

The earrings look valuable, but aren't; they do have a lot of sentimental value for me and I explained this.

It is theoretically possible that I didn't leave them where I thought I left them, and/or that I really did lose them. I just don't think so. I think somebody stole them.

It's an open-plan office inhabited by mostly men in their 20s, one or two women in the same age range, and some older men. There is zero chance that, say, a child wandered through the space and took them to play with, or anything innocent like that.

Now I know that I could have avoided this by securing the earrings before I left my desk, and I am in general very diligent about security and have rarely had anything stolen from me in my life. However it's my policy to err far enough on the side of trust amongst colleagues that I would leave my non-valuable earrings on my desk. I would also say that I have always done this and never had anything stolen at work before.

What worries me about this is not only the loss of the earrings themselves, but what it implies about the people around me. I suppose I could look at this as a salutary reminder that in the workplace, I am not safe and I am not among friends; but I also wonder where the limits of my personal safety actually are now. I understand that if an adult steals, it's a sign that they are capable of much worse.

Now for my questions:

Has anybody here had an experience similar to this? If so:
- did you get the item back, and if so, how?
- what happened next? Did it happen again and/or did anything more sinister happen?
- if you had to deal with the situation again, what would you do the same and what would you do differently? Is there any specific thing you did that definitely made the situation better or worse?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Never had anything stolen in the office but have had my wallet stolen from a vehicle accessed only by my travel group whilst on holiday, which was a pain because I found myself stranded half way round the world with no cash, no bank card and no credit card.

You should probably consider how you are securing your handbag and its content from now on. Mine is always on the floor by the side of my desk but it's a large open plan office and anybody could walk up to my desk pretending to dump/pick up a file and have a rummage and take my belongings. And that would worry me much more in your situation than whether you're ever going to get back your earrings. And it is unlikely you will, unless the person actually feels guilty and decides to leave them on your desk.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2010

I imagine this must feel really violating. I haven't had this happen, but did have someone stealing prescription drugs in a workplace-professional, actually social workers. Perp ended up being an addicted coworker. I think someone ratted them out after they started asking to borrow narcotics from peers, saying they had "forgot" their painkillers

I'd talk to my supervisor about what happen and how I feel. I wouldn't jump to feeling personally unsafe-I don't think there's an automatic correlation with violence.
posted by purenitrous at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2010

does your office have a security system with video cameras? Maybe see if you can look on the video to who stole them.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:42 AM on June 12, 2010

I had a set of tools I use for my job wander off from my desk. I asked a bunch of people and no one knew where they went. So I just sent out a company wide email saying that I was looking for them (not that someone stole them) and if anyone saw them to please return them. I also mentioned (casually) that if someone needed info from me I'd be at lunch from 1-2p that day and to call me instead of emailing back. Lo and behold while I was gone at lunch they reappeared on my desk.
posted by msbutah at 8:46 AM on June 12, 2010 [10 favorites]

People steal for all kinds of reasons -- you needn't necessarily feel threatened or at risk. Also, while it's inconceivable that a child might have bumbled along, it's unfortunately all too real a possibility that a 'professional' thief just walked in through the doors and did the rounds. (While you might argue that there's always security, you could probably imagine that it's laughably easy to circumvent them for someone experienced.)

To answer your questions directly, an item ordered online by a colleague and shipped to our work address was actually opened and taken from its packaging. (The insult to injury was that the empty packaging was left behind as proof of the theft.) This happened in the mail room. My colleague went straight to our supervisor who reported the incident to HR. Nothing more was heard about the situation again.

What did this colleague do? She made sure not to get items sent to her work address again, and she basically became a lot more careful. NO PLACE is 100% secure and safe, and that's the reality.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 8:49 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine once worked in an office that was robbed by a woman who simply walked in confidently and went around stealing wallets. No one knew her, but everyone assumed she was there to meet or work with someone else because she appeared so sure of where she was going. You might ask your supervisor if there's any way something like that happened--perhaps that might prompt a review of the security tape (if it exists and hasn't been erased) for the purpose of ensuring overall security in the building. If a stranger got in and took your earrings, you won't likely get them back but also won't have to be suspicious of your coworkers. If a coworker took them, well, then you (and your supervisor) will find that out.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:50 AM on June 12, 2010

i had that happen to me twice. i work for a family-owned business so there was a strong possibility that it was one of their children. first, i spoke to our HR rep. she spoke to the boss. the first time, what was stolen was mp3 speakers, the second time was money that i carelessly left in my drawer. i got the money back from the boss, but no compensation for the speakers. i had to buy new ones, which cost me all of $20. the result of my complaints was a higher awareness on my part of leaving personal items around. and, also, i have two reports filed with HR.

otherwise, you're at a new job, and it sounds like there are a fair number of coworkers around you. you have no idea of their personal stories. keep your ears and eyes open. office gossip will definitely clue you in to the character and reputation of your coworkers. you will get a better idea of who and what you are dealing with over time, i think.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 8:53 AM on June 12, 2010

Its a bit of a leap from stolen earrings to fearing for your personal safety.

First, look everywhere....EVERYWHERE (did you look under the keyboard?) Be absolutely sure that they have been taken*, then take the matter up with HR/your supervisor. Its unlikely that you will get your earrings back, even if the thief discovers they have no real value (although I'd guess a workplace thief probably wanted them for themselves/their partner rather than to fence them) and feels bad that they took something of sentimental value to you they would have to return them in a discrete way that didn't identify them as the guilty party or get them in trouble - I'm guessing stealing from a co-worker counts as gross misconduct under most employment contracts.

You say there is zero chance a child could have wandered through and taken them to play with but what about adults (not to play with) that aren't employees - do clients/outside contractors have access to your office space?

*there have been 2 instances in my life where items have 'gone missing' that turned up later - in the first I was about 7, I remember playing with my purse in the car then going shopping with my family and being distraught on returning to the car to find I didn't have my purse and couldn't find it. When we got home it was on the mat by the door where I'd put it down to fasten my shoe. In the second I was 12 and I wrote my homework in 2 different pens (can't remember why) and I remember clearly being able to tell the break where I'd changed pens because the ink was a different shade of blue. I got to school the next day and the pen that I switched to was on the windowsill next to my desk, I looked at my homework again and it was flawless - no discernible pen change.) These memories were not fuzzy 'I might haves', they were vivid and clear and I still remember them to this day
posted by missmagenta at 8:58 AM on June 12, 2010

My wallet was once stolen out of my momentarily unattended purse while I was working at the front desk in a downtown office building, by a random person who didn't attract attention to himself because he was behaving like he belonged there. (A co-worker actually spotted the guy near my desk, but didn't think to question why he was there.)

The wallet was discovered (sans cash) in a trash bin outside by a woman who worked in an office building nearby, recognized the photo on my ID, and returned it to a coffee shop where she'd seen me regularly.

After this happened to me, I started to notice that there are all manner of people who will breeze into office buildings all day long, with a convenient cover story if needed (sales rep, maintenance tech, etc). If you don't work in a highly secured area, and it's even remotely possible that an opportunistic thief could have been by your desk, don't automatically assign blame to your co-workers.

Anyway, you might consider filing a police report. The cops aren't going to hit the streets looking for your earrings, but if there is a pattern of theft in your area, it could eventually be important information.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:02 AM on June 12, 2010

it's unfortunately all too real a possibility that a 'professional' thief just walked in through the doors and did the rounds.

This was my first thought too, having had it happen somewhere I worked previously. In that case it was a very small office, someone managed to get in and made off with bags and personal items while we were all in the next room. The circumstances made it obvious that it was an outsider, so we made a police report, but nothing was ever recovered.

I would see if anyone else has had anything go missing, although it doesn't sound like it. I think the best way to deal with it mentally is to make sure that everybody knows about it (so they can be on their guard) and then to assume that it was an outsider rather than a colleague. Whether this is true or not, it will hopefully help you to deal with the psychological effects that the theft has had on you.

Also, not to make out that theft is not a big deal (it is, absolutely) but I would argue with the belief that "if an adult steals, it's a sign that they are capable of much worse." Working in retail as a student, I learned that most thefts are crimes of opportunity (I don't have a cite for that, sorry) which makes me think that you don't need to worry too much about your personal safety.

That said, I'm really sorry that you're having to deal with this; it's unsettling and not at all nice.
posted by ask me please at 9:05 AM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Many years ago I sat in a cubicle that was very close to a conference room. It seemed like every time I came back from a meeting in another part of the building, I'd be missing a phone book or a calculator or a ruler. People were apparently just stopping in my cube and grabbing the things they needed for their meetings, and then disappearing into the ether. The last straw was coming back to my desk to find that someone had unplugged my mouse and walked off with it. It's not like my computer was off and they could have assumed I was out for the day. Unbelievable.

I think your earrings were kind of like this. Someone saw them, wanted them, and took them. I don't think you need to worry about your personal safety, but you should definitely change your view of how secure your belongings are during the work day. I'm now in an office and actually have a security camera close to where I sit. When I go to meetings, I tend to scoop up my phone and my iPod and anything else tempting and drop them into a drawer with my pocketbook. I figure that it's one thing to quickly pocket something from a desktop and it's another level of commitment to be willing to get caught rifling through desk drawers.

Reporting the loss to your department and reception were both good ideas. If you have a facilities department or security, you may consider putting them on notice as well. I hope the earrings turn up for you.
posted by contrariwise at 9:15 AM on June 12, 2010

Since I had money stolen out of my wallet -- which was in my purse in my unlocked locker -- at work 13 years ago, I don't take anything of value into the workplace. Yes, it's inconvenient but I'd rather hold onto the illusion that I work with decent people than find out otherwise.

Since you can't control others' behavior, you have to control what you can. I'm not sure why you needed to take your earrings off and leave them at your desk (was this a no-earrings meeting? did you have no pockets? did your desk have no drawers?), but I'm not trying to blame you for this nasty thing that happened to you. I just want you to change your behavior so you aren't such an easy mark.

Also, keep an eye on the office earlobes. I once caught a sorority sister who stole all my shirts (lol -- long story but very funny) when she stupidly wore one to lunch and sat across from me. It's possible that the klepto may have the cojones/idiocy to actually wear the earrings to work.
posted by kidelo at 9:28 AM on June 12, 2010

Someone once stole my Macbook from my office while I was at lunch. The cops told me that professional thieves wander the city all day, trying to get into offices. It's pretty easy to get into most buildings -- unless you have to show a badge to security (and even then, it's not THAT hard to get in). Once inside, a thief will just walk around briskly, with an air of confidence. Most people won't question someone who looks like they know where they're going. The thief will grab random things that look valuable and then leave.

What worries me about this is not only the loss of the earrings themselves, but what it implies about the people around me.

Assuming it was stolen by a co-worker, it doesn't imply anything special about the "people" around you. It implies that ONE PERSON around you is a thief.

Having been in your shoes, I know how violated you feel, but -- sorry -- all you're facing is reality: some people steal. It sounds like you have some kind of default assumption that "people are basically good" and now this assumption has been rocked.

Your base assumption -- if that's what it is -- is wrong. I'm not saying you should become a cynic who is suspicious of everyone. If you did, you'd be replacing your positive default with an equally wrong negative one: "people are basically bad." That's wrong, too.

The truth: people are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Many people are honest (most of the time) but sometimes give into temptation. If you work with, say, 25 people, it's VERY likely that at least one of them steals occasionally. That's not pessimism. It's just acknowledging that there are thieves in the world. It shouldn't make you lose faith in all humanity. That would be overreacting. That would be like assuming all restaurants are terrible, just because you had one bad meal. But -- having had that bad meal -- it would be equally foolish to assume that ALL restaurants have wonderful, tasty food.

I suppose I could look at this as a salutary reminder that in the workplace, I am not safe and I am not among friends;

WAY over-the-top.

You are generally safe. And most people at your office probably like you. The thief might even like you. (Maybe he/she has some kind of compulsion or was just having a bad day that day and gave into some kind of inappropriate whim.) Or maybe there is one truly bad apple at work. Sorry, that happens. It doesn't say anything about people (or your co-workers) in general.

but I also wonder where the limits of my personal safety actually are now. I understand that if an adult steals, it's a sign that they are capable of much worse.

Wow. I don't know where you're getting this information. It sounds like you think that, because someone took your earrings, you're now likely to get assaulted or murdered at work. That's absurd. That's no more likely to happen now than it was before. Even most muggers aren't violent. I promise you that most office workers aren't, either -- even the ones who steal. The most "unsafe" you are is that it might now be wise to lock valuable, personal items in your desk.

When my laptop was stolen, that's exactly what the cops told me. They suggested I secure personal items. They never told me to watch my back, hire security guards or bring mace to work.

Before I quit working at that place, a few other employees had things stolen from their desks. That sucked, but it was the extent of what happened. No one got attacked or hurt in any other way. And I've never heard of office theft (which is a pretty mundane occurrence) escalating into anything worse.
posted by grumblebee at 9:44 AM on June 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

I once worked in an office building where pair of thieves, posing as custodian/maintenance workers went from office to office stealing things from people's desks and purses. One would be the look-out while the other wandered through the office pretending to empty trash cans or clean windows. What was particularly unnerving is that rather than take the purses and wallets, they'd open them and take money and credit cards. All of the people who were robbed didn't realize it until they went to pay for something. By this time, the culprits had already taken the cards and used them.

Also, people steal things for complicated psychological reasons. It doesn't mean they're violent, but it probably means you should keep your purse and things of value locked in a drawer when you are at work.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:09 AM on June 12, 2010

Grumblebee beat me to it - - don't let this sour you on all the people around you. One person did this. In my experience, it's worse to wrongly condemn one or more innocent people than to let a guilty one "go free" (in my head). It happened, it's a loss, write it off, and adapt. I had some money stolen out of my desk once, and so I stopped leaving money in it. Meanwhile I recognized that it's possible it was none of the nice people around me. Release it.
posted by Askr at 11:31 AM on June 12, 2010

This happened in the office where I worked. A temporary replacement person had finished her contract, collected her pay in cash, and invited us all to the canteen for a farewell coffee, and stupidly left the cash in an unlocked drawer in her desk. And this was on diplomatic premises with absolutely no chance of an outsider entering, wandering around or leaving without being accompanied at all times. It was heartbreaking and sickening, and we all (presumably also the thief) started a collection to pay her at least part of it back.

Lesson learned: talk to HR and insist you have a right to have a lockable storage of some kind - a locker, a desk drawer, anything - and use it. Put the key to it on the keyring you always keep with you. Or even leave all your other keys in there and carry only the key to the drawer in your pocket at all times. Yes, it's sad, it's sickening, but it's safer (assuming nobody unauthorised would have the chutzpah to actually break open a locked drawer in an open-plan office). Remember that theft is 95% opportunity and 5% greed, so by denying the opportunity you're already 95% less likely to be robbed again.

I'm so sorry this happened to you. The nasty suspicions it naturally causes are usually far worse than the actual loss.
posted by aqsakal at 12:42 PM on June 12, 2010

I worked in an office where someone just walked right in and puttered about, stealing everyone's wallets and purses. So that's the first thing I'd ask, if any strangers were in the office that day.

Pitch it as "I'm not too concerned about my earrings, but this is a safety issue." And think of all the privileged documents and computers! That should light a fire under them. Someone should be watching the door, and making sure that people don't just wander in off the street.

Another time I had a laptop stolen from a desk which was near a hallway door. In that case it was obviously someone who had walked by from another office, popped in and grabbed it. Is your desk situated such that a passer-by could snatch stuff?

Either way, definitely report it to HR. It could be part of an ongoing pattern of office theft.

And I think it's very unlikely that anything worse will happen. Petty thieves are just that - petty thieves. It's probably just a coworker with a klepto streak. But if The Worst Happened, you'd want it on record that you filed an official complaint.
posted by ErikaB at 2:10 PM on June 12, 2010

I had a boss steal my Swiss Army knife FROM MY PURSE. Honestly. He used to steal food too. And of course there was the serial pen pilfer. How can you steal a pen and use it, when said pen has MY NAME engraved on it??

If you can, report it to HR. Since you are in an open office, realize that people may take your stuff. As others have said, try to lock your purse and personal belongings in a drawer or cabinet. As for personal safety, don't worry. There was nothing really sinister about this, the people who stole from me were of course violating me, but they didn't follow me into the bathroom and give me a swirlly or kneecap me in the parking lot. They were just losers.
posted by fifilaru at 4:28 PM on June 12, 2010

I once had $200 stolen from my wallet at work. My purse was under my desk, and it was most certainly one of my coworkers. My office is in a gated area, so there were no guests. And, I know I had the $200 because it was for my roommate for a bill that was to be paid that day. All I did was go to the kitchen to eat lunch! I spoke to my boss. He said he had "an idea" of who could have done it. No one was fired or questioned. I didn't get my money back. Now, I rarely leave my desk for longer than a bathroom trip without bringing my purse with me.

Related: I asked one of my coworkers to water my desk plant one summer while I was away for a week, and she brought it outside, let it die, and then used the ceramic flower pot for one of HER desk plants.

*grumble grumble*

So yeah, I don't trust the people I work with. Chalk it up to lesson learned, and see if your boss will help you.
posted by Lizsterr at 4:30 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I worked at a help desk, years ago, for a place that had a problem: randomly disappearing Macs. We were mostly a PC shop, but there were departments and subsidiaries in the building that had Macs instead, and they were routinely going bye-bye. As the help desk, we would get calls asking if we'd taken it in for service or upgrade. The thefts were efficient -- detached monitors, keyboards, and mice would be left behind. Security was upgraded, then upgraded again. Eventually the front desk was searching anyone within reason (e.g. not visiting CEOs from other companies) carrying a container that could hold a laptop (or even an SE, there were lots more of those). As help desk underlings we were ourselves subject to search just for delivering equipment across campus. It was unnerving because we simply couldn't predict when something would disappear and of course with it went a lot of somebody's work unless it was (rarely) fully and properly backed up on a server.

Ultimately, it turned out the thieves had loading dock access and were spiriting the computers out using ostensibly empty computer boxes put out for recycling. These were not being checked by security. In fact, buying a replacement Mac for someone would provide them a box to steal another one! After that we had to break down every shipping box. We heard that the crew doing this -- mostly outsiders with one insider -- had been arrested, but we couldn't be certain they all had been put out of commission. Not only had they made our lives a living, uh, heck for over a year, but their influenced continued on afterward, making us do more work.

Lesson here, for you: Thieves are smarter about stealing than you'd think, and more determined to steal your stuff than you are to keep it safe.
posted by dhartung at 7:59 PM on June 12, 2010

Last year I was alone in one part of the office, and a group of visitors accompanying a client was on the floor. I looked around and saw a stranger, someone who'd presumably come in with the group, rummaging through some coats on a coat rack, including mine. Told my supervisor, who refused to believe me. A day later I realized one of my credit cards had been stolen: the bank called and told me it had been used in a gas station outside town.

I no longer work there, and this incident was one of the accumulating factors that made me decide to get out of there.
posted by zadcat at 11:57 PM on June 12, 2010

Back when I was still married, I spent some time discussing my wife switching to a wallet for day to day things, with a purse for special occasions.

The point was finally made for me in a rather unpleasant way.

Someone entered the produce department area in the grocery store she worked in, rummaged around underneath the main counter until they found her purse, and removed the shared checkbook within.

We got a call three days later from the local P.D. who found it, minus four checks, lying on the literal doorsteps of the courthouse.
posted by Samizdata at 4:37 AM on June 13, 2010

Where I work, there is/has been only minor lunch theft from the communal fridge. The response to people who care if their lunch is stolen - don't put it in the fridge. Also, a few years ago, someone was selling candy bars for his son's church group. Had an envelope set up where people could leave a dollar. Someone stole the money once - about $30. It must have been an "inside job", because we're behind a DoD cypher locked door.

Live and learn. But don't fear for your safety.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:56 AM on June 16, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you all for your thoughtful replies. From what you've said, I'll conclude that the theft was about stealing, and that there's nothing more to it than that.

Which is not nice, but it could have been worse. What I was worried about was not violence, but other crimes such as I experienced at a previous workplace: not theft, but false witness (some of which was so bad that a defamation case was seriously considered). Although the ringleader didn't steal, he did strongly remind me of another, similar person I dealt with years before who did steal. So this made me wonder if the theft was an early warning sign that I could be faced with this or other nastiness again. I hope that makes sense.

What happened was, lost property called security, and security filed a theft report. Then on Friday the earrings turned up under my file drawer. So perhaps I did lose them (I still don't think so), but either way, they're back. So I feel okay about it, and your answers helped!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:43 PM on June 20, 2010

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