When I was a doctoral graduate student at the University of Minnesota during the late 1970s, I began conducting research on employee theft. At the time this was an area of criminology that was virtually unexplored. I found that it was hard to study this subject then, since few retailers were willing to let a social scientist have full access to the records on employee theft statistics and related subjects. Decades later, the scholarly literature on dishonesty in the workplace is still understudied and poorly understood despite the best efforts of a handful of researchers.
As such, I am always on the lookout for new research on this topic. In this article, I wish to share the results of a quality employee theft study that was published as a doctoral dissertation. The author is Dana N. Baxter. She completed her research while studying under Dr. Dennis Giever at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is presently an assistant professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia.
The title of her copyrighted study is Who is Taking the Shirt Off Your Back? A Multi-Method Analysis of Theft at a Specialty Retailer. Baxter graciously has given me permission to share the major findings and excerpts of her study in this post.
Purpose of the Study
Baxter’s study examines the causes and cost of theft, both internal and external, at one particular specialty retailer chain and offers an explanation of motivation for those caught committing internal theft. Historically, crime has been perceived as an activity of the nonworking or lower-class members of society. Some still may not even consider illegal actions that occur during the course of business to be crimes at all.
Employee theft statistics show that it is one of the most rampant and costly issues faced by today’s public and private business owners. Most individuals spend the majority of their adult lives at their workplace, which makes the study of occupational deviance and theft critical, because the inclination towards criminal activity does not disappear once an individual enters into the workplace.
The purpose of this study was to provide answers as to:
- Who is being caught committing theft,
- The characteristics of store locations that lead to loss,
- How much loss is occurring annually,
- The cost of internal theft,
- What prevention techniques are being used in an attempt to control and prevent loss, and
- The motivations to commit internal theft as provided by those individuals who admitted to fraud at the specialty retailer.
The results of the study add to the literature, inform future research, and guide policy changes within retailers in regards to total loss, employee theft, and what may be done to prevent it.
This study was an analysis of three different forms of data from one specialty retail chain with 1,000-plus stores with an emphasis on the variables that predict loss in stores. Baxter collected data in three different phases from 2005 through 2012.
The initial phase was a total population design, where nine independent variables were examined in terms of their impact on both dollar loss and shrinkage percentage.
The second phase was a nonprobability sample of case files of former employees who had been caught committing a form of internal theft. This phase also included a review of the confession statement provided by the employee at the time of their termination interview.
Finally, Baxter conducted eight interviews with members of the loss prevention department to flush out themes about both external and internal loss and to garner information about the types of prevention techniques used at this particular retailer in an attempt to deter crime.
Baxter examined the effect of store location, store location type, store location environment, cash-and-wrap location, and use of camera surveillance. In addition, she was allowed to examine the personal statements made by apprehended dishonest employees. The shrinkage for this chain was 1.62 percent, which was slightly higher than the national average.
Expectations vs. Findings
Baxter expected to find that employee turnover and manager turnover were highly correlated with retail shrinkage, but did not find that this was a strong relationship. Instead, she found that the highest losses were found in those stores with the largest number of managers. Clearly, managers do not cause theft, but this finding indicates that employee theft statistics are highest in the larger stores, especially in malls located in urban areas experiencing higher levels of social strain.
High levels of loss were also noted in “lifestyle centers,” located in the wealthier suburban areas. Many of these stores had more doors and cash-wrap locations, which allow quick exit from the stores adjacent to major highways. Alternatively, rural stores had lower levels of loss.
Finally, only 20 percent of the stores had CCTV, which did not have a clear deterrent effect. Interestingly, the higher loss stores were more likely to have public-view monitors, which raise the question of their deterrent effect on retail shrinkage.
When Baxter looked at demographic characteristics of the dishonest employee, not surprisingly, she found that males, younger, and low-tenured associates were more likely to steal. She states, “The majority of employees caught committing theft were male, young (18–25), marginal (sales associates), and short-term employees (employed for less than one year).”
Assessments of LP Personnel
Baxter was also given access to case reports and confession statements that were made by employees who were apprehended. In addition, she was allowed to interview loss prevention personnel to get their perspectives on the causes of theft. For example, one typical respondent wrote in the statement, “I knew I was worth more,” indicating that he or she was unhappy with their level of compensation for the duties performed. Another indicated that there was conflict with the management team at the store. These statements support the notion that marginal, young employees with short tenures are likely to express frustration with their compensation and benefits.
Baxter wrote, “Some of the individuals from the loss prevention department, including the director, echoed this information. The respondents felt that younger individuals had a poor work ethic, believed that they are not being compensated fairly for the tasks they are being asked to perform by the organization, and that these same individuals are bringing college and credit card debt to the workplace. In order to compensate themselves for perceived injustices and to pay for these pre-existing debts, young people took short-term marginal positions and quickly began to steal.
Other LP associates believed young people tended to steal for extra fun money, believing they would never be caught by the organization, while older individuals took money for gambling debts, divorce, and medical bills.
Another LP respondent surmised that younger individuals commit theft because they are trying to maintain an image, and use the brand (and subsequent theft from the brand) to maintain that image, whereas older individuals are taking because of necessity due to financial responsibility, drug problems, or debts.
It is clear from the responses that most loss prevention personnel believe that younger individuals are motivated by fun, maintenance of an image, credit card debts, and a general contention against hard work.
Analysis of Confessions
Baxter found that a common theme throughout the reviewed literature, including from some of my research, was dissatisfaction among employees leading to a greater likelihood of employee theft. To my surprise, this was not a common theme in the present research project. Baxter reports, “Although a few individuals identified a level of dissatisfaction in their statements, the majority of respondents did not expressly state a lack of satisfaction with their workplace. In fact, a great majority of individuals expressed remorse for their actions and adamantly indicated that the employer was not to blame for their participation in theft.”
A few factors could explain this general lack of dissonance expressed by theft participants. It is possible that the employees at this organization feel that they are treated fairly and equitable, therefore making it harder to steal from the organization, or rather, making it difficult to blame the organization for the pilferage.
Another consideration for this lack of expressed organizational dissatisfaction may be that the individuals who were disgruntled did not compose statements for the loss prevention department. The demographic characteristics of those who chose to complete statements versus those who did not were similar, but one must still consider that the motivational differences for these individuals could vary.
Instead of dissatisfaction, Baxter found that confessions contained a financial theme for employee theft. “The financial theme had six sub-categories for individuals who further elaborated on life details that led to participation in employee theft. In addition to the statements, several loss prevention members also discussed the financial pressures that lead employees to theft from work. Some members of the loss prevention department felt that some individuals are motivated by a personal financial need, such as sickness, family issues, or even death….These individuals discussed life events such as siblings with drug addictions and parents who are unemployed and in need of extra help. Six of the letters were personal medical issues or family medical issues, such as overpriced medications, parents having cancer, and grandparents who have numerous medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes. One respondent explained the difficulties of life after the death of a grandparent. This grandparent had a lot of debt from medical bills, and this debt fell onto the grandchild. The suggested motivations of the loss prevention members do appear to coincide with the justifications provided by some respondents,” she wrote.
“In general, these individuals did not appear to express remorse in their written statements at the time of the interview. One loss prevention department member felt that the employees just do not believe they will be caught committing these acts, so the benefit outweighs the cost in their mind. Sixteen of the employees involved in employee theft incidents did indicate that their reason was simply an opportunity arose within the store, and they made the decision to take it. Employees saw various incidents within the store as an opportunity for easy money. Opportunities such as a deposit bag full of cash being left unattended or a reprint of a charge approval slip for a customer. Others may have had the opportunity present itself in the form of a manager or co-worker explaining how to commit fraudulent returns, or a friend pressing the employee into overriding prices on items to create larger returns. Once these initial opportunities presented themselves and the employee was not caught right away, they seemed to rationalize that the behavior was acceptable and continued to participate in the employee theft.”
Indications of Theft Motivation
Although the Baxter did not test any one specific criminological theory in this study, some of the motivations provided in the case-file confessional statements aligned with both the routine activities theory and techniques of neutralizations. The components of the routine activities theory can be seen in the motivations coded as opportunity.
A few respondents really narrow down onto the elements in their letters needed for crime to occur per the routine activities theory. An example from one letter has a former employee describing his family’s poor financial situation creating a need for money (motivated offender), a management staff that often takes unauthorized breaks away from the store (lack of a capable guardian), and subsequently leaves their register keys with the sales associates to make managerial financial authorizations within the store (suitable target).
While analyzing the statements for the motivations provided, Baxter also noted that numerous statements contained phrases and descriptions that could be categorized into some of the techniques of neutralization. The “appeal to higher loyalties” neutralization materialized in several different statements. One respondent explained that the refund fraud was not occurring because of a need for money; rather this associate was attempting to improve the conversion rates within the store and help out the management team in increasing numbers. The associate’s claim thereby rationalizes that the deception was all for the greater good of the store, not for personal gain.
Several other former employees claimed in their letters that the employee theft was not occurring for their own personal gain, but rather in an effort to help out a friend or a loved one. Once again, these individuals insist that the employee theft was not for them or about them, but for the greater good of someone they care about.
The “denial of responsibility” was also alluded to in multiple letters. A poignant example of this neutralization came from one letter in particular. The writer of this letter expresses right from the beginning that this crime is a result of the bad economy, citing that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” This respondent continues on with the denial of responsibility by explaining that “my parents, when I was young used my social security number to get by either getting loans or filing their taxes.” The associate claims that by the time this infraction was realized, the debt was already piled up with no sign of relief. Now, the individual is unable to ascertain a loan either from a reputable bank or from a friend. Therefore, this individual is not responsible for their subsequent actions while at work; that perhaps there was no choice in the matter, making employee theft inevitable.
Implications for Future Research on Employee Theft Statistics
Baxter states in summary, “The data collected in this study has implications in both the world of academia and in the business world, especially within loss prevention departments of specialty retailers. This is a relatively under-studied topic in the field of criminology and has the potential to be explored in further detail. Hopefully, this study is the catalyst for further research into other types of employee theft, employee deviance, workplace cultures and norms, and workplace ethics.”
She adds, “The results from this study could be used to create policies that greatly increase the effectiveness in the prevention of internal theft within specialty retail. This study could also provide tangible information for loss prevention personnel in specialty retail to use when establishing hiring practices, and when trying to work with human resources on improving the culture of the business.”
I could not state this any better. Hopefully, the next time that you are approached to participate in an academic research study, the actionable findings of this study will clearly justify the involvement of your firm.
This article was first published in 2014 and updated on May 24, 2017.