When A Person Steals

After an employee who is considered highly trustworthy by management is caught in the act of committing a theft, we are often asked these, or similar, questions:

  • Why would they steal now?
  • Have they been stealing all along?
  • What makes some people steal and others remain honest?
  • Are there factors that influence a person’s decision making process when considering theft?

Our extensive experience and research indicates that there are three important interactive factors that come into play when a person steals.  They are:

  • Personal Integrity
  • Situational Pressures
  • Convenient Opportunities

Of these three factors, employers have some means of identifying, especially during the pre-employment screening process, one factor (personal integrity); have relatively no control over another factor (situational pressures they face); and fortunately can greatly influence the last factor (convenient opportunities to commit theft). Let’s review each factor individually.

Personal Integrity: How honest is the person; have they internalized their honesty; and do their attitudes, character and behavior support honesty? Determining the answer to these questions is no easy task. However, since honesty is a personality trait, it can be measured using one of several ‘honesty tests’ available to employers, such as The Applicant Review by IntegriView. These tests measure an applicant’s honesty/integrity, and assist an employer in identifying those applicants who are dishonest and at a higher risk for stealing from a company.  In addition, as Jack Hayes references in his Pre-Employment Screening article in this newsletter, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior”. Therefore, a thorough criminal background check is beneficial to verify a person’s past behavior. However, just because a person has high integrity doesn’t mean they won’t steal; but they are certainly more likely not to engage in dishonest activity than people with low integrity.

Situational Pressures: This refers to problems a person faces at a certain point in time, especially a need for money, and cannot be controlled by an employer. An example of financial or monetary pressures would be a person’s spouse loses their job and suddenly they have a difficult time meeting their financial obligations; a family member becomes ill and it places a financial burden on the wage earners; or a person’s car breaks down or they get into an accident and don’t have the monetary resources to have it repaired.  Situational pressures can also be ‘emotional’. For example, peer pressure.  Friends pressuring an employee to steal for them or to ‘look the other way’ as they steal from the store. These type pressures can change from day to day.  Those individuals with low integrity are more likely to turn towards dishonesty when they encounter a situational pressure, than those with high integrity.

Convenient Opportunities: Just how easy does the employer make it for someone to steal? Fortunately, theft opportunities are controlled by both the type and effectiveness of a company’s internal controls (policies/procedures). Are proper ‘checks and balances’ in place to both prevent and detect dishonesty? Or are employees given what we call ‘multiple tasks’ to perform, which would greatly reduce the likelihood of them being detected if they did steal?  Occasionally, theft is so convenient that even people with high integrity succumb, even though they may have had no intension of being dishonest.

So, whether a person will steal in a given situation depends on more than just their personal integrity, it also involves their situational pressures at the time, and how convenient or difficult the employer makes the theft opportunity.  $

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