Workplace theft, also known as non-cash fraud, occurs when employees take items from their place of employment, such as food, supplies and equipment, for use at home. The Society for Human Resource Management cites data from a study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners in reporting that between 2002 and 2018, incidents of workplace theft increased from 10.6% to 21% of all fraud cases.

Employees may not see workplace theft as a criminal act but as an entitlement. It often starts out so small that it hardly seems worth prosecuting. However, small acts of workplace theft can escalate, and the consequences can be more serious than workers expect.

Workers’ perspectives

According to the Atlantic, in 2019, a typical full-time employee could expect to work from home 3.3 hours per day on average. That number has likely increased in 2020. The blurring of the line between home and office may be part of the reason for the increase in workplace theft. Employees may rationalize that it is not wrong to take the materials home because they will be using them while working.

Many employers work for large corporations, and when it is more difficult to put a face to the victim, it is easier to believe that no one is coming to harm as a result. Workers also justify workplace theft on the basis of financial difficulty, a perception that their needs are greater than the affluent company they work for.

Employers’ perspectives

While each individual act of theft may be small, when many employees in the workplace take items, it adds up for those responsible for purchasing. To compensate for theft and ensure sufficient supplies, some managers increase product orders by 20%, which costs the company money.

Taking a small item may give rise to moral disengagement, a social-cognitive mechanism that makes it easier to justify larger thefts. In 2018, a judge sentenced an employee at a Texas juvenile detention center to 50 years in prison for stealing $1.3 million worth of meat over the course of nine years, starting in small amounts.