The stolen stapler and the culture of injustice



Baggy trousers are good for this. So are surprisingly capacious handbags. Or a very big hat. But none of these are really necessary. Most petty theft in the office is about poker-faced audacity, no criminal genius needed. Just keep it cool and do not wink at the guard as you leave.

Office theft is interesting because it is a form of low-stakes white-collar crime. Meaning, that it is not usually done to feed hollow-bellied children or to advance the rights of the working-class, nor does it net the individual thief vast sums.

Thieving employees are almost certainly justifying their acts to themselves one way or another. One of my favorite empirical studies of hypocrisy demonstrates that there is a funny tendency for books on ethics to become lost or stolen from libraries, more than other types of philosophy books. I suspect that ordinary people are just as good at creating self-serving rationalizations as tenured professors would be. The larcenous staff member might regard it as a species of distributive justice.

Feelings of unfairness and dissatisfaction with the job are very good predictors of theft. So taking more than your fair share of stationery could be a tiny way of getting what you think you are owed, and at the same time, delivering some wicked payback. Revenge narratives, after all, are a staple of Filipino storytelling.

Although only a minority of employees continuously and consistently make a career out of white-collar petty crime, their presence tends to weaken norms of good conduct and normalize casual wrong-doing. And if this is all taking place in an environment of overwork and unreasonable expectations, I will not be surprised if more egregious abuses also happen.

What worries me is that the legitimate grievances of employees might lead them to turn on each other. A culture of punishment and payback might encourage a kind of victim-blaming: the company is so unfair, it deserves to be stolen from; the boss is so horrible, she deserves to be undermined.

By this dark logic, our white-collar vigilantes are actually on the side of a twisted version of justice, complete with mild-mannered alter egos. And what if the boss is a really nice guy but has hands that seem magnetically drawn to female employees? Well, they (the victims) probably deserve that, too. It is at this point where injustice decides to photocopy itself, producing more injustice, while stealing the toner cartridge.

So here is my possibly impractical but certainly interesting advice for organizations: do not try to solve office theft. That’s not the problem. It is an indicator of a demoralized workforce, and maybe a harbinger of even worse things. What you could do is monitor incidences of petty theft closely, not so that you can punish thieves, but as a barometer of office malaise. With advance warning, there might be time to turn around a toxic office culture. Unless you prefer to lose people rather than staplers.

Dr. Adrianne “A.J.” Galang is an associate professor of Psychology at De La Salle University. Email:


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