Is stealing a big issue at work, or just sort of, meh?
December 3, 2012 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Theft problem at work creating lack of trust

I'm a little baffled by my employer's response, or lack of response, to a rash of workplace thefts that have been happening over the past six months. I'm wondering what you think of it, and whether my suggestion that we start random drug testing was out of line.

So everything from computers and microphones, cds and phone charges, have been lifted at my workplace recently. If there's any pattern, it seems that somebody was focusing mostly on gadgets and office supplies at first. So they locked down the studios and rooms that held supplies in the evening. Seemed to work for most things.

Then things out of the kitchen started disappearing - bowls, glasses, crockery. Nothing valuable. Then this person or people got into the basement somehow (which as I understood it is some kind of uber-privileged secret dungeon that only two people on the planet have ever had the key to, so not sure how that happened), and started stealing sealed crates of coffee creamer, napkins and toilet paper, and plastic tableware.

To me, it looks like the pattern of stealing you see with substance abusers. I'm related to a couple of these, so it just screams opportunistic lifting of anything that isn't nailed down for purposes of resale. Especially with the stuff that was sealed in like-new packaging, it seems like this would be great to shop to the convenience store down the street that sells Diet Coke and bongs, you know? Either that or it's a klepto who just wants to steal little stuff for the kicks.

It's really sort of depressing. I bought a tower of burnable cds and forgot to take them home on Friday night - today it's poof, gone. It makes you feel violated. People have gone through my drawers, apparently, and taken weird random items that don't seem like anyone else would really want them. My studio and cabinets have no locks - and they're not paying to get me a locking cabinet. So I've taken to not bringing in stuff I don't want to lose anymore. So far so good. But -

Why no effort to actually resolve the problem, instead of telling us to live with it? I suggested that since the thefts seem to be happening overnight and on weekends, was there any way we could put a spotlight on our evening crew?

Everyone was aghast at that suggestion. "Oh no, that would be profiling!" The overnight guys - board-operators at our radio station - are a nice group of guys (although poor as church mice at their rate of pay) and everyone likes them. So I see their point, but what is this fear of pointing the finger?

Personally, I no longer take thoughtless risks and I do what I can to keep my stuff safe. But I'm annoyed by the lack of response to our concerns. How hard would it be, on the morning after a new theft is reported, to simply:

1) check the electronic keycard records to see who entered the building
2) narrow down the range of possibilities
3) talk to the folks in question and ask for the return of the item

I suggested this in a meeting, and got the response, "Well, but it might not be someone who works here. It could be someone they're inviting in to the building." So I said, "Okay, so if our employees are inviting non-employees into the building overnight and on weekends, maybe we should put a stop to that?" No coherent response.

Cameras have been suggested - everyone balks at that. Invasion of privacy, we're not a prison, etc.

I also mentioned that drug testing might be helpful. It just seems like a reasonable option. Sure, you can't accuse someone who fails a drug test of stealing - without other evidence. But once you've removed them from their job, you don't have to confront them. You've solved the problem tangentially, and without damaging anyone's self-esteem (God forbid).

The workplace is paranoid these days, and I feel squiggy knowing that my studio is regularly being rifled by unseen hands. I don't know who to trust - the person stealing my stuff could be the person I'm yakking with over coffee about all kinds of aspects of my life. I feel my employer is really not taking care of me here. Have I got any sort of grounds, as an employee, for insisting they deal with the issue, or is this something I just have to let go?
posted by cartoonella to Work & Money (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So I see their point, but what is this fear of pointing the finger?

"Office thief" is a bell you can't unring. For many people, an accusation is more than enough for them to be shunned or ostracized or even just looked at funny and not trusted ever again. You'll basically be turning "general paranoia" into "those guys did it," which would really, really suck for those guys if they did not do it.

I also mentioned that drug testing might be helpful. It just seems like a reasonable option.

This could get fired a bunch of perfectly nice, hard-working, non-stealing people who have habits that are being legally recognized across the country. Morality aside, to any manager worth a damn, isn't the sort of collateral damage you'd want in a company. If Steve the Incredibly Important IT Guy or Susan the Amazing Project Manager comes up positive and you have to fire them, you're screwing yourself real bad.
posted by griphus at 11:31 AM on December 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

Things I would consider doing, in no particular order:

- find a new job and quit this ridiculous office full of maniacs and thieves
- set up a webcam on my own without letting anyone else know and monitoring it myself and then calling the police when I saw a break-in (I would likely use AskMe to find out about the legality of this beforehand)
- place a moderately expensive item in a poorly concealed location in my area in hopes of it being stolen; this item would have some sort of tracking device on it purchased from an online SUPERSPY STUFFS retailer
- hide in the office overnight in a ghillie suit and leap out screaming at anyone who touched my stuff

Also I would assume that the reason no one in management is interested in pursuing any kind of police/legal steps towards fixing this problem is because one or more of them is either in on it, or that they have some drugged-up bum of a nephew/cousin/whatever that they already know is responsible for this behavior and they feel they can't do anything about it due to family obligations.
posted by elizardbits at 11:31 AM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Can you report thefts to the police as they happen? That may pressure your employer. Start with you CDs.
posted by taff at 11:32 AM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't have a solution to dealing with your employer, but... Can you put a webcam just on your computer (on the d/l considering the reaction before*), and have it save images or video on a motion detector? (If you're on a Mac, I use EvoCam.) Bait your desk with something if necessary. If you get evidence, you'll have a much stronger case to bring to your managers.

* Though they may be more ok with a camera pointed only at your workstation.
posted by supercres at 11:32 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

And yes, drug testing is a terrible idea that will likely solve nothing. Not sure why overnight and weekend cameras, when the office is closed, would be an "invasion of privacy," though. Also it seems incredibly stupid that the building's insurance company has not gotten involved.
posted by elizardbits at 11:33 AM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

"So I see their point, but what is this fear of pointing the finger?"

In addition to how inherently incredibly fucked up it is to accuse people of theft with no evidence or even good reason to suspect them, it opens up your employer to liability. Just make sure you don't become that guy who accuses some innocent person of theft - especially if its based on 'profiling' because that would be VERY PROFOUNDLY not cool.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:33 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, more generally, your employer should consider themselves responsible for the safety of your stuff while you're not around. Either they or the building they rent from aught to have an insurance policy that covers this kind of thing.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

You are coming on weird about this. "Hey, it's probably that evening group!" "I know, let's interrogate everyone who enters!" "Maybe we should have videos monitoring us all the time!" "Let's drug test everyone!"

The thefts are horrible, but to jump from people stealing coffee creamer to drug tests is huge.

A personal webcam seems reasonable, honestly, but you've probably burned your shot at getting management to do anything on your suggestion for a while.
posted by jeather at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


You've solved the problem tangentially, and without damaging anyone's self-esteem (God forbid).

Getting fired for failing a drug test can do heinous and permanent damage to one's career, and in this economy, that would do a lot more ill than hurt self-esteem.
posted by griphus at 11:38 AM on December 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

It seems really, really odd to me that a small business would have a rash of stolen computers and not report this to the police. Really incredibly odd. Are you sure that the problem is that nothing's being done about this, or is it possible that things are being looked into and your managers aren't sharing that information with you?
posted by elizardbits at 11:39 AM on December 3, 2012 [13 favorites]

The management may be doing things about the rash of thefts but may not want to involve you in the process. Alternately, they may already know who is doing this but are waiting for a clear case to go after him/her.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:46 AM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Drug testing is not the solution. Cameras are really the best option right now. It's a workplace so there is no expectation of privacy.
posted by radioamy at 11:47 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also I would assume that the reason no one in management is interested in pursuing any kind of police/legal steps towards fixing this problem is because one or more of them is either in on it, or...

To expand on this a bit, OP, this situation does not strike me as "the pattern of stealing you see with substance abusers" as you originally speculate. It seems quite like the owner / manager / someone with The Keys has some kind of kleptomania problem. This is why things are disappearing from super secret locations like the basement; this is why everyone at the top is disinterested in preventing the thefts. And deflecting responsibility - "it could have been guests in the building"? Really? Overnight? Sure, whatever floats your boat buddy.

I think your manager is stealing crap and wants to keep getting away with it. In which case, you should move on if you can; it's going to get worse before it gets better.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:50 AM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

The way these thefts are running --- especially with the addition of thefts from that secured basement --- plus management's unwillingness to clamp down on the stealing, says to me that it's not just in-house, it's management or the station owners themselves, because that's the two groups with the most 24/7 access to the every corner of the building. Alternatively, manager's or owner's kids --- somebody comes in for a quick couple hours of work on the weekend or whenever with their kid in tow; kid goes rooting through the place: opportunistic theft. Or manager/owner tells kid, here's my keys, go down to the basement and bring me up a case of x.

I'd skip asking for the upper echelons to call the cops or do drug testing: they obviously DON'T intend to call the police, and as others say drug testing could easily backfire. Installing your own camera, without letting anyone know you've done so, is probably your best bet, with one caveat: make sure the camera is well-hidden, so THAT doesn't get stolen too!
posted by easily confused at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for these enlightening responses, guys. That's why I come to y'all! I appreciate it!
posted by cartoonella at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2012

Drug-testing is horrible and invasive unless an employee has a public safety role (bus driver, pilot, etc.), and even then ... Get a sturdy lock for your file cabinet, and lock it. Put a sign on it: "Not much of value in here, just tired of being ripped off." Deal with the morale. Pressure the company to provide lockers, or some other lockable space so that people can get work done.
posted by theora55 at 12:39 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a management dilemma for weak management. The likely culprits are an individual or group in your office management team, who have the access and contacts to shift stuff like coffee creamer and secondhand IT kit.

Try not to make it personal. Secure your stuff. Back up your work. Don't start throwing accusations about. By all means secrete a cam somewhere but I'd caution against positioning yourself as the office Sherlock or setting bait.

I'd also consider that there may be sensitivities you aren't privy to that make dealing with the issue complicated. One time my work was losing a laptop a week to an internal thief. The thief was known to management. I don't know why she wasn't sacked or shopped, but suspect it was because she knew something compromising and a few laptops here and there were considered less expensive than a kerfuffle.

If you want to get management involved, perhaps think about the corporate angle, rather than an emotional one. I.e data loss, employee safety.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:03 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most business owners take it really personally when stuff gets stolen from their business. Like, to an extreme and unhealthy degree. The one time I caught a guy trying to break into my office, it was unbelievably satisfying to bust him in the act.

I find your employer's apathy very suspicious.
posted by ryanrs at 1:07 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I like the idea of spy gadgets. When I taught school, I was seriously considering puting cameras all over the place, but the technology 10 years ago isn't as cheap or cheerful as it is now.

I'm really vindictive though. I'd spend $500 to catch someone stealing $20 worth of coffee.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:36 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I understand where you are coming from -- theft is unnerving even at work.

However, I do think your suggestion of random drug testing and pointing fingers at the night crew is probably doing just as much harm to morale and trust than management's apparent apathy. As mentioned above, it's quite possible that management is not as apathetic as you think: they could be working on a resolution to the problem quietly. Quite possibly the thief is an employee diagnosed with kleptomania or an addiction, your employer is aware of this, and thus the legal aspect of dismissal just got a lot trickier and there's no way they will tell you anything about someone's personal health information. I can't say - I don't know your management. It's certainly possible that they just don't care that much -- does that fit in with your overall impression of how the station is managed?

Another thing comes to mind that may play into this -- does your station have a corporate parent? Does local management (and employees) have generally good or bad feelings toward the company? It sounds like people around you feel like a good number of employees are being a little screwed over. If there's a significant amount of antipathy toward the company, as separate from the station, maybe people feel like this relatively minor theft is a way to stick it to the company. Not right, but there you go. (If you're really concerned and you think this is what is going on, you could always phone up the internal audit department at the corporate parent and ask them what they think. But do that after you've found another job!)

If I were you, I'd let it go, because it seems like anything less than identification of the individual(s) responsible won't satisfy you, and it is highly unlikely that management will do that. I'd give it some time -- however long you are comfortable with -- and if it's not resolved, just find another job. Easier said than done, I know. But if the problem is really management, this is not an employer you should stay with.
posted by stowaway at 1:43 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

By the way -- installing your own security cameras? That is a quick ticket to unemployment right there.
posted by stowaway at 1:45 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The management may be doing things about the rash of thefts but may not want to involve you in the process.

Importantly, they may see you as a loose cannon with a big mouth who could be jeopardizing what they are, in fact, doing, which is not something they are really required to share with you. I'd still be disappointed in their response, but whatever they may in fact be doing, it's probably best that as few people as possible know what it is.

I worked at a place where Macs -- the ones with the handles -- were being stolen at an alarming rate. As an IT staff person with an all-but-full-access keycard I was not only one of the people who would take the report, but also potentially under suspicion, and let me tell you, it sucked. We started having to check things through security just to move them for trivial maintenance or redeployment. In the end it turned out they were being sneaked out the loading dock in boxes to be recycled, bypassing all security checks. But it went on forever and that period was just agonizing. We had no control over the security/investigation aspects of this and felt powerless. So I do empathize.

I would just take a deep breath at this point and recognize that being the office sleuth is Not Your Job. Yeah, you feel just as violated as anyone, but you don't get to act on it unilaterally and you don't get to tell your bosses how to fix it, especially if giving such unsolicited advice can cost you respect.
posted by dhartung at 2:53 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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