Fast Track: Stop - thieves are at work

It may live on your desk, but it's not yours to keep
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WHEN BARRY DALY, a railway worker nicknamed the Fat Controller, was jailed last month for stealing train engines and coaches to sell on to enthusiasts, you probably laughed. Most people did. Who could seriously expect to get away with robbing so blatantly from their employer?

According to a new NOP survey, "Honesty in the Workplace", more people than you think - for it has revealed that almost half of Britain's workforce have stolen something from their employer.

Research shows that, for the new recruit, the stationery cupboard is the most appealing place to start pilfering. Noel Proud, a psychologist, says: "While people who steal stationery may simply need it, for some it's more about bringing a degree of risk to their lives."

To top it all, he claims, employees tend to view such pilfering as a victimless crime. Because stationery is as useful outside as inside the office, staff tell themselves that it's one of those little unspoken benefits we don't have to worry about being apprehended for, right?

Wrong. It may once have been a harsh employer who fretted about the odd Biro going missing, but now bosses are fighting back. According to the Association of British Insurers, the value of office goods stolen by employees amounts to as much as pounds 1bn a year.

"Staff will steal anything that moves," says the security chief of a big City firm. "Mobile phones, pictures, big pot plants - even chairs and filing cabinets. We've even had someone take components out of the computer on his desk, so that he could upgrade his computer at home."

But when you consider the record of employers' procedures to catch staff out, this news is hardly surprising. The BBC, for example, is one of many companies that have recently started spot checks of their employees - but it has been largely unsuccessful, since most staff claim that they are legitimately leaving the office with the equipment they need, in order to do their jobs.

Despite the fact that CCTV cameras are the largest growth sector in the security industry, it doesn't take long for an employee to notice where they are and avoid them. And even when the camera does succeed in its task, the result isn't necessarily a foregone conclusion, claims Angela Edward, of the Institute of Personnel Development. "When an employee is caught on camera and apprehended, they rarely show remorse. They usually say, `Oh, I forgot to return it.'

"Even if they've taken a laptop computer, they rarely regard stealing from the workplace as theft," Ms Edward says. This doesn't make the disciplining process easy for employers.

Nevertheless, says James Reed, director of Reed Personnel Services, increasingly companies are attempting to deter theft by making examples of those who are caught.

"Employers have the power to use disciplinary procedures, and may be very hard on employees who break the rules, whether fiddling expenses or committing serious fraud."

Some firms even test the attitudes and behaviour of potential employees. "Doesn't everyone steal a little?" they may ask you at your interview, incorporating in the test a scale to measure the extent to which you may be presenting an artificially positive picture. The British Security Industry Association estimates that UK companies spent pounds 3.5bn on security measures during 1997.

"Never assume that the punishment will reflect the value of the item you've stolen," adds Angela Edward. A policeman in Essex was recently dismissed after stealing pounds 4 from a staff "fines" jar.

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