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Crime Prevention at the Workplace: Employee Theft Essay

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Updated: Oct 28th, 2020


Employee theft is one of the most common types of crimes committed in organizations operating across all business domains. Statistical data shows that the total annual amount stolen by employees from businesses equals the US $50 billion, which on average, results in 7% profit loss (Employee thefts statistics 2017). According to Greenberg and Barling (2001), about 28% of all thefts at the workplace occur in manufacturing, 33% βˆ’ in hospitals, and up to 62% βˆ’ in retail.

This type of occupational crime may be associated with either merchandise loss or direct modification of prices and transactions with the purpose of benefiting oneself. Considering that any form of employee theft induces substantial harm to the financial performance of companies, the integration of adequate crime prevention procedures in the corporate security system is of great importance.

Nowadays, a lot of potential solutions to the problem of crime in the workplace exist. Some of them are based on finding a right balance between the implementation of crime deterrent technologies and skilled personnel, while others may focus on an analytical approach to various issues of employee theft, such as individual motivations for engagement in crime, the overall level of organizational morale, and possible external causes of illegal behaviors.

To understand which of the available solutions can benefit employers in employee theft prevention most, it is essential to review the major theories explaining criminal behavior at the workplace. After the appraisal of theoretical ideas, relevant prevention methods will be analyzed in the given paper. The review of the literature will help identify to what extent the security manager can utilize different theft prevention techniques in the workplace and propose some practical recommendations that might allow employers to increase security efficiency.

Literature Review

Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice theory suggests that “offenders follow certain, often predictable pathways and that they make judgments based on cost-benefit analysis, however quick and rudimentary” (Schneider 2014, p. 43). It means that people always tend to calculate the possible costs and benefits of their actions. Naturally, individuals will incline in favor of an act that might allow them to avoid pain and multiply pleasure even if they have to do something illegal.

It is implied that when an employee steals from his or her employer, he or she takes advantage of available opportunities associated with an insignificant risk of detection while providing significant potential for personal benefit.

As observed by Hollinger and Davis (2006), “self-interested offenders are primarily motivated by the pursuit of financial gain” (p. 208). Still, the forces driving individual motivations can vary from external economic pressures to a desire to get a portion of adrenaline by engaging in risk-taking behaviors. In either way, offenders usually consider the following factors to substantiate their behavioral decisions: perceived certainty and severity of formal and informal sanctions (e.g., criminal outcomes and loss of career mobility, etc.); moral controls and values; possible damage to self-image; benefits of noncompliance perceived legitimacy of legal regulations, etc. (Hollinger and Davis 2006).

The major strength of the rational choice theory is that it attempts to explain the psychological mechanisms underlying criminal behavior and the urge to steal, in particular. It is possible to say that by using the reviewed theoretical principles, employers and security officers can predict and manage crime to some extent through the examination of employees’ characteristics, staff education, and analysis of corporate culture elements that may help inhibit adverse motivations.

However, it is hard to say that all events of theft are, in fact, based on a rational choice because emotion and affect can largely influence decision making. As stated by Walters (2015), emotions and psychological reactions can facilitate the process of choice-making by biasing individuals towards particular behavior options. In other words, a person will likely act in a way that feels right. It is apparent that these emotional biases are subjective in their nature and arise as a result of a complex chain of interactions between individuals and their environment.

Thus, it may be hard to forecast the cases of theft as personal perceptions of reality and morality differ in all people. It may be especially difficult to do in case an employee steals to get non-material gains, just for fun. Nevertheless, it is possible to presume that irrational criminal behavior can also be partially controlled via corporate culture design practices and particular recruiting procedures.

Opportunity Theory

The given theoretical perspective suggests that people are inherently greedy and, if given an opportunity, they would steal. However, this inherent greed can translate into an actual act of theft merely in the circumstances inclining towards it. For instance, in stores, employees are always surrounded by things of distinct values and, sometimes, they see no barriers to taking those things from the workplace. In other cases, employees may have unlimited access to cash flows, which allows them to steal either large or small amounts of money when not supervised efficiently.

The theory emphasizes the importance of adequate surveillance over employees’ activities, as well as secure inventory and storage systems. Nevertheless, the opportunity theory does not provide an extensive explanation of criminal behaviors because not every person will engage in crime even if he or she finds him/her self in the circumstances predisposing to it. The empirical research evidence shows that although “employees working in those jobs possessing the greatest uncontrolled access to money and property did report slightly higher levels of theft,” “the majority of employees with high opportunity to steal were not involved in dishonest activity” (Hollinger and Davis 2006, p. 211).

It is valid to presume that subjective perceptions serve as key drivers of behavior in this situation as well. As Hollinger and Davis (2006) state, individual views on extrinsic (objective) and intrinsic (subjective) values of merchandise, as well as the factor of concealability, play the main role in motivating employees to steal.

Unfortunately, employers cannot fully influence individual perceptions of material objects, yet they may try to control the factor of concealability and implement thorough checkup procedures of employees before and after the shift to detect if somebody tries to carry away a small item that is easy to hide. Such surveillance measures may be appropriate in some workplaces where employees deal with luxury and other highly valuable items. Nevertheless, this approach may not be very cost-efficient in regular stores. Moreover, people usually do not like strict security screening policies and regard them as an intrusion into personal space. Thus, although it may be deemed effective in terms of theft prevention, such measures can contribute to employees’ dissatisfaction and reduced morale.

Job Satisfaction and Workplace Equity

“While rational choice theories suggest that employees engage in a personal cost-benefit analysis prior to committing a crime, other theories maintain that employees are likely to steal because of the way they are treated by the organization and its managers” (Hollinger and Davis 2006, p. 212). The given idea implies that dissatisfied employees may be inclined to steal more than satisfied ones. The personal experience of almost every person who was unfairly treated at least once in his or her life will likely prove this assumption.

It seems natural for a person to seek compensation for psychological distress caused by mistreatment and lack of recognition. As Shoss et al. (2016) state, revenge against the employer who caused stress is “consistent with social psychological research demonstrating that individuals believe that retaliation against offending others will improve their mood” (p. 573). This kind of vengeance may take many forms. However, it is possible to presume that in case an employee is not provided with a sufficient amount of monetary rewards for his or her contribution to the organizational growth and profitability, he or she may attempt to engage in corporate property and cash theft more likely.

Nowadays, one can locate a lot of empirical research evidence that shows the correlation between job dissatisfaction, as well as unfair treatment by the management, and employee dishonesty. In different industries, distinct factors in the organizational environment and structure can result in a greater level of job dissatisfaction and employee involvement in the theft. Hollinger and Davis (2006) state that in retail, deviant employees are usually unhappy with inadequate “task challenges” and the way employers treat them (p. 213).

In clinical settings, employee thieves may also be dissatisfied with the lack of employers’ caring and supervisors’ mistreatment, as well as limited job responsibility and authority (Hollinger and Davis 2006). The findings indicate that although slightly different factors can contribute to low job satisfaction in various professions, in either way, when employers are perceived by workers as dishonest, and their actions and decisions are regarded as unfair, the risk for employee theft increases.

The given theory provides multiple practical implications for managers. It shows how employers can manage the risk of organized crime through the development of positive relationships with employees. The theory also implies that individual perceptions play a significant role in determining deviant employee behaviors. Therefore, managers can aim to mediate them through some HR management practices, such as staff education, and so on.

Overall, the theory covers only those theft prevention measures, which are related to the intangible side of the issue, e.g., ethical leadership, shared corporate values, etc. The fact that it may address the psychological core of the problem is its major strength. However, just like all the other reviewed theories, it cannot be applied to all possible cases of crime universally. The combination of theoretical approaches, as well as security practices and technologies associated with them, can help employers and managers prevent crime more efficiently.

Recommended Theft Prevention Methods

The findings of the theory and literature review revealed a few possible psychological and environmental factors that may foster employee theft in organizations. These factors can be controlled by employers and security managers to a varying extent. The particular theft prevention and detection practices, which were identified during the theory review and were already briefly mentioned before in the paper, will be discussed in detail in the given section.

Staff Education and Communication

According to Goh and Kong (2016), one of the major reasons why employees can take small items such as pens and leftover food home from their workplace during employment is the unclear perception of corporate policies and sanctions pertaining to crime and theft, in particular. It means that sometimes workers may even be unaware that they are doing something inappropriate because the items they take home seem to have no value.

Additionally, when an employee does not know what type of punishment can be imposed on him or her in case he/she takes something more valuable than a pen or a pencil and, consequently, does not perceive any risk, the illegal act will likely to take place. Thus, the management should strive to communicate all the theft and crime-related issues to employees properly and raise their awareness of possible costs of deviant behavior.

For instance, if the severity of both formal and informal sanctions will be clearly communicated to subordinates, theft will probably not seem that beneficial for many of them. Also, since unethical values may be one of the employee-led reasons for engagement in deviant behaviors (Goh and Kong 2016), it can be appropriate for managers to develop the standards of ethical standards and instruct subordinates on multiple facets of organizational ethics.

Internal security policies may cover multiple issues, depending on the character of organizational performance. A few of regulations may be as follows: transaction recording and transaction processing duties must be separated, access to valuable assets and accounting systems should be restricted to authorized workers, etc. (i-Sight n.d.). When adequate authorization and access controls are introduced in the organization, the number of opportunities for theft commitment significantly decreases.

Creation of Positive Organizational Culture

As stated by Dillon (2012), for effective employee crime prevention, the workplace environment should be analyzed and evaluated on a regular basis to identify current weaknesses and target them efficiently. “Prevention of workplace aggression and violence first and foremost requires the creation and sustenance of a positive work culture where people are treated with respect by management and co-workers, where good work is recognized, and where conflict is effectively dealt with as it arises” (Dillon 2012, p. 17).

Additionally, it is observed that “when a company has written job descriptions, clear organizational structure, comprehensive policies and procedures, open lines of communication between management and employees, and positive employee recognition, employees feel valued and loyal” (i-Sight n.d., p. 5). It means that along with the development of security policies, the management must create regulations and procedures that would promote employees’ morale and professional self-efficacy.

It seems that the design of effective employee motivation and reinforcement system rather plays one of the most important roles in preventing theft at the workplace because sufficient monetary rewards help eliminate the factor of economic pressures and promote the positive perception of organizational equity among workers. Moreover, it is suggested that the increased employee participation in the organizational decision making can have a favorable effect on the prevention of deviant and coping behaviors because it allows them to have some control over the workplace-related stressors (Shoss et al., 2016).

Thus, employers must revise their organizational structures in order to provide subordinates with sufficient access to all the necessary information, offer them some level of authority, and enable them to communicate the challenges they experience at the workplace with supervisors openly.

Surveillance Over Employees’ Activities

Electronic employee monitoring and surveillance are commonly used in multiple organizations to detect any illegal activities. Video monitoring through such technologies as CCTV cameras is one of the major security measures aimed to tackle employee theft. The presence of the CCTV at the workplace is usually regarded as a sign of safety. What is more important, in some cases, their availability can increase the perceived risks of theft commitment and, therefore, can make employees decide against stealing something.

However, when using employee monitoring systems, managers should take into account multiple ethical considerations. First of all, workers must know what devices are used to monitor them, where they are installed, and what are the purposes of their utilization (Moussa 2015).

Although the given legal and ethical standards of surveillance use are important because they help prevent the abuse of technology by employers and ensure subordinates’ privacy, they also allow employees to develop bypass strategies for stealing. For example, when a worker knows where the cameras are, he/she can plan a way to take a thing in a way it will not be clearly recognized on the record. Nevertheless, even though the capacity of CCTV cameras in crime prevention may be limited, the recorded videos are usually used to support the activities of security managers during the investigation of crime.

Smart Recruiting Techniques

Since it was identified that engagement in theft is largely defined by personal views and ethical values, it is possible to presume that the administration of candidates’ background checks, as well as the evaluation of their individual characteristics, may help identify if they can be inclined towards stealing and other types of crime at the workplace. Criminal background checks are currently conducted in many organizations.

However, it is not the only hiring measure that can help tip off a potentially dishonest employee. Other methods include the confirmation of educational qualifications and employment history, verification of financial status, and performance of media and internet search (i-Sight n.d.). Various smart hiring procedures not only allow detecting obvious information about potentially harmful inclinations of candidates for a position but also can assist in identifying existing external pressures they may face, which can lead them towards stealing.


The findings of the literature review make it clear that employee theft and engagement in illegal activities at the workplace are not simple phenomena that can be easily explained. There are many controversies regarding this problem in the literature on deviant behaviors within companies. Due to the complex nature of motivations leading employees to theft, it is hard for security managers and employers to prevent crime. In some cases, it can be impossible to do.

However, the conclusions made by many scholars and researchers reveal a few possible psycho-emotional mechanisms that underlie thieves’ decision-making process. As the rational choice theory suggests, before engaging in crime, individuals evaluate all costs and benefits of their intended actions. At the same time, according to the principles of the opportunity theory, employees may only steal if they find themselves in circumstances that dispose of theft.

Lastly, the scholars investigating the links between job satisfaction and employee dishonesty reveal that when unfairly treated, subordinates can use stealing and other counterproductive behaviors as coping mechanisms. Each of the analyzed theories provides a valid perspective on the problem of employee theft. Nevertheless, these explanations are only partial. Therefore, managers must combine various theoretical frameworks and ideas to design comprehensive security and crime prevention system that would target multiple dimensions of the problem simultaneously.

Each of the reviewed theories is associated with particular practical implications. For instance, to reduce the number of opportunities for theft, managers should raise subordinates’ awareness of relevant sanctions and implement advanced surveillance systems. Additionally, each of them also implies that subjective perceptions of physical objects and their values, as well as individual ethical principles, largely define deviant behaviors.

The given implication is worth considering because it is one of the most difficult to control by employers. A lot of workplace thieves do not even know that they are doing something very inappropriate, while others find a way to justify their actions. Since the majority of the latter usually feel extremely dissatisfied with their supervisors and workloads, employers should strive to normalize these factors.

Thus, to prevent the risk of theft at the workplace, it may be recommended for the management to analyze the organizational environment in order to identify such predictors of deviant employee behavior as an increasing rate of staff turnover and take measures to increase job satisfaction in a timely manner. Overall, employee happiness is a guarantee of greater productivity and ethical conduct. Its development should be the foundation of all organizational crime prevention efforts.

Reference List

Dillon, B 2012, ‘Workplace violence: impact, causes, and prevention’, Work, vol. 42, no. 1, pp.15–20.

. 2017. Web.

Goh, E & S Kong 2016, ‘Theft in the hotel workplace: exploring frontline employees perceptions towards hotel employee theft’, Tourism and Hospitality Research, pp. 1-14.

Greenberg, L, & Barling, J 2001, . Web.

Hollinger, CH & Davis, JL 2006, Employee theft and staff dishonesty. Web.

i-Sight n.d., . Web.

Moussa, M 2015. ‘Monitoring employee behavior through the use of technology and issues of employee privacy in America’, Sage Open, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 1-13.

Schneider, R 2014, ‘Environmental studies and the influence of culture: security consulting experiences in Korea, Japan, and Malaysia’, in M Gill (ed), The handbook of security, Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK, pp. 41-64.

Shoss, M, Jundt, D, Kobler, A & Reynolds, C 2016, ‘Doing bad to feel better? An investigation of within- and between-person perceptions of counterproductive work behavior as a coping tactic’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 137, no. 3, pp. 571-587.

Walters, G 2015, ‘Decision to commit crime: rational or nonrational’, Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 1-18.

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