The study, published by the University of Nottingham Business School, defines three types of employee: those who set out to steal whenever they can, estimated at as many as a quarter of the total workforce; those who steal if the chance arises, accounting for half of all employees; and those who never stray from the straight and narrow.
This means that no fewer than three out of four staff will "succumb to temptation" and steal from their employers at some point. This can cover everything from taking paper-clips to major embezzlement, said the report's co-author, David Sharp.
The sort of employee that bosses have to watch most closely is the outwardly respectable middle manager, often with a long history with the company. "They are the group of people most likely to commit the largest frauds because they have the best understanding of how to cheat their company and cover their tracks," said Mr Sharp.
While white males are the worst offenders, the increasing feminisation of middle management has meant that women are also increasingly involved in workplace fraud.
Official Serious Fraud Office (SFO) figures show that serious financial crime costs British companies pounds 5bn annually, and most of it is committed by employees. Indeed, SFO investigators last week began an inquiry into an alleged pounds 33m "rogue trading" scandal at the City derivatives firm Muirprice. It is not yet known whether the alleged fraud was carried out for personal gain or to hide trading losses.
The official figures are believed to be only the tip of the iceberg. A conspiracy of silence surrounds the issue, say fraud experts. The National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates that employee theft costs pounds 29bn annually.
Much of the fraudulent wrongdoing remains hidden because, even when a company discovers a swindle, it often does not make it public for fear of undermining customer confidence. Offenders are more likely to be quietly dismissed than arrested. Rather than call the police, who have relegated fraud to a low priority, firms who suspect they have a problem will often hire skilled private investigators who can secretly film, bug and research the private affairs of staff.
Civil liberties campaigners argue that firms that are over-zealous in their hunt for potential fraudsters risk infringing basic human rights. Liz Parratt, of Liberty, said that delving into the personal lives of employees was on the increase. "If it is done without any semblance of suspicion then it is clearly an unjustified breach of privacy," she said.
Mike Bluestone, managing director of the London-based Berkeley Security Bureau, which is employed by companies to investigate staff, said it was often desperate personal problems that drove employees to betray the trust placed in them. "Several fraudsters we have exposed have turned to crime to pay for medical treatment for a sick relative," he said.
Research carried out in the US in the Eighties highlighted another key reason for staff being dishonest: revenge. Employees who believed they had been treated badly or had missed out on deserved promotion would steal from the company out of spite, several studies showed.
The Nottingham University report, titled Fraud Survey - 1998, was based on a study of 200 leading UK firms and commissioned by the consultancy Business Defence Europe (BDE), which specialises in fraud risk management.
Steven Allan, managing director of BDE, said the report's finding should be seen as a wake-up call in Britain's boardrooms. "Fraud has been the `F' word of business for too long, because nobody wants to believe that their company is not being run properly," he said.
Initiatives have now been introduced to heighten awareness of the problem among the business community, and there is a plan to set up a Financial Crime Research Centre.Reuse content