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Research Findings from Employee Theft Articles

For more than 30 years, I have been researching employee theft, occupational crime, employee dishonesty, and workplace deviance. I peruse scholarly journals and academic publications regularly for research studies that could help us all better understand this phenomenon.

This post features a couple of relevant employee theft articles that may shed some light on this continuing problem. I have included the full citations so you can find these publications online or in your local library to read and share with your staff. (If you do not have direct access to a major research library, try using Google Scholar.)

“Workplace Theft: An Analysis of Student-Employee Offenders and Job Attributes”

The first of the two employee theft articles is authored by Elizabeth Ehrhardt Mustaine (University of Central Florida) and Richard Tewksbury (University of Louisville) and published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice 27:1 (pages 111 – 127, 2002). This study surveyed a large population of college students attending a number of major universities. Since existing research suggests that many dishonest employees are younger, part-time, untenured, and dissatisfied, these two researchers concluded that college students would make an ideal sample of employees to survey about their occupational criminal behavior.

They conducted a self-report survey of 1,531 students in the fall of 1996 asking them to report personal demographics, opportunity, and previous theft activities. The findings are consistent with a number of other studies (including mine), but with rather unique results. The authors found that three factors differentiate between those who admitted stealing from an employer from those who did not. Some of these predictors included theft behaviors that occurred in other settings.

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For example, most impressive was the fact that students who have admitted that they recently have broken into a motor vehicle were almost fourteen (13.87) times more likely to steal from their employers. Moreover, students who have recently stolen something from a stranger were over four times (4.35) more likely to commit employee theft. Also of significant interest was the fact that ex-convicts were nearly four times (3.59) more likely to admit stealing from their place of work than those respondents who have never been sent to prison.

There were a few other findings of interest. Alcohol use was related to admitting stealing at work. Public intoxication, but not drug use, predicted admitted employee theft. College students who reported that they have been drunk in public were 1.56 times more likely to admit stealing while at work. Finally, the more jobs that a student has had in the past and the more often these jobs involved cash handling was also related to workplace theft, but at a lower level of predictive power.

We must remember that this study was conducted with college students and used self-reported indicators of workplace theft. Nevertheless, even with this caveat about the sample, the policy implications are significant.

First, drug testing may be a good indicator of current and future drug use, but may not be the best indicator of theft behavior.

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Second, criminal background checks that screen out applicants with prior convictions that resulted in incarceration are obviously supported by this screening practice.

Third, as we know in social science, the best indicators of future behavior is past behavior, especially when we consider that stealing in non-employment situations is a good predictor of workplace theft.

The principal paradox of this study is the finding that with the exception of the above factors, most of which retailers screen for already, the average college student who does not steal is not dramatically different from the one who does. Since we rely on these young people for a substantial proportion of the retail industry workforce, there is clearly no silver bullet that can distinguish those who will steal at work from those who will not.

“Dishonest Associates in the Workplace: The Correlation between Motivation and Opportunity in Retail among Employee Theft(s)”

The second study is an excellent master’s thesis written in May 2009 by Edith Marie Fikes, who studied at the University of Texas at Arlington. Unlike many studies, such as the one above, that rely upon self-report methodologies, this study reviews the characteristics of associates who were terminated for instances of employee theft by a single anonymous retailer. All of these cases were detected between the first of July 2007 and the end of June 2008. This study employed the classic theoretical theft triangle of motivation, opportunity, and rationalization first introduced by renowned white-collar crime and embezzlement scholar Donald Cressey.

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Fikes was granted access to the files of all 502 employees apprehended for theft during this one-year period. She reports that the most common associate apprehended was a white male (59 percent) between the ages of 18 to 22 years old (48 percent), employed on an hourly basis (88 percent), who worked on average no more than six months before being caught (36 percent). The amount stolen averaged $523, usually occurred at the point of sale (38 percent), and was discovered by management (53.5 percent), but not reported by a fellow associate (only 15.4 percent). Not surprisingly, termination without criminal charges filed was the most typical final disposition of these cases (87 percent).

What really makes this study unique is that the researcher also inquired as to whether the employer inadvertently created an opportunity for the crime to occur by not creating a credible set of control policies and procedures designed to reduce the opportunity for employee dishonesty. She found that theft increased significantly when the following circumstances are present:

  • Damaged merchandise case not secured,
  • Entering or exiting the building alone allowed
  • Failure to check returns for contents
  • Failure to inspect trash
  • Failure to process non-receipted returns
  • Failure to inspect refund report
  • Failure to scan product
  • Failure to secure case pick-up
  • Failure to secure customers credit cards
  • Failure to secure merchandise
  • Failure to secure product per merchandising guidelines
  • Improper or unauthorized use of company funds
  • Incorrect register access
  • Poor key controls
  • Lock-up door propped open
  • Bag checks not conducted
  • Manager not present at the front lanes
  • Password integrity problems
  • Unauthorized associate in lock up
  • Unauthorized price overrides

In short, if the loss incurred was partially the fault of the actions or lack of action by management, the incident was coded as such. Applying these oft-used criteria, the author found that “77 percent, or 369, of the associates terminated for theft, had an opportunity created for them by management to steal.”

While this research does not intend to “blame the victim” for the dishonesty of retail associates, it does raise valid questions about the role that inadequate controls and poorly implemented asset protection policies play in creating the ideal opportunity for a motivated offender to act on various temptations to steal.

The Value of Employee Theft Articles

Well-designed, peer-reviewed research studies conducted by qualified criminologists often do not find their way into the reading lists or desks of retail and loss prevention executives. My hope is that these two studies, and others like it, will stimulate discussion and reassessment of the policies and practices used to deter, prevent, and detect dishonesty by retail sales associates in the current business and social environment.

This article was originally published in 2012 and was updated December 17, 2017. 

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