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Saturday, 3 March 2012

When is Theft Not Really Stealing?

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvini...
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Theo: You do the boss a favour, staying at your desk over your lunch break to field an important call for him, and, whilst you're captive, in what's generally your own time, you surf the net. It's company policy that you can do this during your lunch break, provided you don't enter inappropriate sites, of course. You come across an article you've been wanting to read; research for a private project. So, without the time to read it there and then, you print off the five pages with the colour illustrations, on the firm's laser printer so you can take it home to read in comfort. Is that theft?

Dave: What, taking five sheets of office paper and a bit of ink they'll never even notice? You're kiddin', right?

Theo: The question is this: Is it yours to take?

Dave: Hell, man, you're doing the boss a favour in your own time. He owes you, doesn't he? Any case, I bet you waste more paper and ink than that nearly every day by mistake.

Theo: So, you don't think it counts as stealing?

Dave: No way.

Theo: The same, I suppose, goes for those odd paper clips, rubber bands and envelopes you take for personal use?

Dave: Look, everyone does that. You can't call it stealing. The amount they pay for stationery, they'd never even notice, would they?

Theo: And the private letters placed into the post tray to be stamped or franked?

Dave: Maybe in an emergency. You know, when it needs to go today and you don't have a stamp or you can't get out the office for some reason. Once in a while won't do any harm, will it?

Theo: What about that photocopying of the club's agenda for that meeting you've arranged tonight as secretary? A copy of three pages for each of thirty seven members. How about that?

Dave: It's for a good cause, isn't it? I mean, I know the boss doesn't give to that cause, but the firm chooses a charity every year to support, so they don't mind a bit of giving, do they?

Theo: Not, then, a matter of principle? More one of expediency, I suppose?

Dave: Horses for courses, mate. What harm's it do. That sort of thing doesn't hurt the company. Any case, everybody does it.

Theo: And because everybody does it, that makes it acceptable, or right?

Dave: Well, you can't really call it stealing, can you? I mean, stealing's important things, things that cost, not little bits and pieces like that.

Theo: So, just to get this right: everybody does it and they're only small things?

Dave: That's right.

Theo: So. A hundred employees take a hundred sheets, together with the accompanying ink, what, every week, month, year?

Dave: Now you're being daft. Not everyone does that much, do they? I mean that's ten k sheets and a lot of ink. No. It's not like that; it's just occasional and not all the staff do it, do they?

Theo: Not everybody, then?

Dave: Well, no. Some folk aren't interested in that sort of thing. They take other things instead.

Theo: Ah, you mean time? For example, the quarter of an hour they spend talking at the water cooler when they're being paid to work? Or the few minutes each day they arrive late? Or maybe those odd minutes they need for shopping over lunch? That sort of thing?

Dave: That's right. Most people do that sort of thing.

Theo: And that's not stealing, even though they're paid for that time?

Dave: You think the bosses work every hour of every day? Think they're working when they have a  'meeting' on the golf course? Think they're working when they fly business class to some conference they could do by video call?

Theo: I understand your point. So, what you mean when you say the everybody does it, is that the practise of petty theft is rife throughout the structure of the workplace and is accepted simply as a part of daily life?

Dave: Well, I wouldn't put it like that. But, yeah, I suppose that's really what it is when you look at it. I mean, no one works every minute of every day doing what they're paid to do, do they?

Theo: I expect not. In fact, I suspect it would be bad for their mental health if they did. But, my point here is more about what we call such things. What we label this activity. The bosses see their own small thefts as 'perks', the natural reward for their level of commitment. How do the ordinary workers see their own small acts of stealing?

Dave: Most of them see it as getting something more out the bosses, if they think of it at all. You're making more of it than it really is, Theo. It's just part of working life.

Theo: You're probably right. But what that means in reality is that workers, and their bosses, actually approve, even if only by not disapproving, the daily general theft we've discussed.

Dave: Life's too short to worry about things like that.

Theo: But, what concerns me, Dave, is whether the casual acceptance of such petty theft allows some people to consider rather more valuable items taken to be also acceptable. We don't have time to discuss this now. But I'd like to plant the notion that it's the general acceptance of small theft as unimportant that allows some folk to go on to steal the work of others, to see such theft as something normal and of no harm to anyone.

Dave: It's a thought. But, like you say, we best get back to work. The boss is looking over here and glancing at his watch.

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