By Jeff Gillis & Mike Simpson

You work hard for eight hours each workday. Your office is full of supplies – new and unused – and the time comes when you’re running low on pens or toilet paper and decide to throw some in your bag on your way out. Some people may call that stealing, but you deserve a few perks for all you do, right? 

If your manager catches you shopping around the supply closet, he or she is not likely to encourage you to take what you need. Petty theft in the workplace has been around for ages, and recently, it’s been on the rise. Whether you’re taking complimentary snacks or spending company time on personal matters, the things you take add up. What items are sticky-fingered employees after the most, and how do managers feel about it? We surveyed 700 employees and about 300 managers about their experiences and perceptions of workplace theft. Keep reading to see what we found.

Excuses for Stealing

Regardless of the excuse or explanation for committing a crime, most people stand strong in opposition to criminal activity. But when it comes to small, seemingly harmless theft in the workplace, 18.3% of employees thought it was OK to steal from work. However, under certain circumstances, that percentage began to creep up. Just over 24% of employees thought it was acceptable to steal when a company had multiples of one item and wouldn’t notice any missing. Some people took a stance on necessity: Nearly 21% of employees also said it was acceptable to steal from work when you’re underpaid.

Sticking it to the man” (or corporate America) might be a common theme among those who have stolen from the office. But people also excused petty theft because it’s, well, petty. Nearly 13% of respondents said stealing was acceptable when the boss is rude. While this may be considered peak pettiness, toxic bosses can have significant impacts on employee health and office culture. Once employees are strained, and the office culture takes a turn for the worst, petty theft is bound to rise.

Shopping in the Supply Closet

Walking out of the office with a desktop computer or office chair may turn some heads, but it isn’t completely unheard of. Theft in the workplace costs U.S. businesses $50 billion each year, although it’s hard to imagine pens and sticky notes causing so much damage. In fact, 42% of employees reported stealing pens and pencils, while 25.4% and 23.1% admitted to taking paper clips and sticky notes, respectively. On the more expensive side, 4.6% said they stole tech accessories.

Stealing technology, furniture, and cash is likely to raise red flags, but are the small supplies that are basically overflowing in the supply closet really going to be missed? The debate on what is and is not ethical to steal from work is ongoing, but some people say food, office supplies, and printing is entirely within your rights. However, don’t get greedy. Taking an extra plate of free lunch may be acceptable, but don’t steal the lunch with your co-worker’s name on it. 

Compensated Personal Time

It’s not just the occasional stapler or pencil that employees help themselves to, though. They also participate in intangible theft, or “time theft.” While most of us have sat behind a desk scrolling through Facebook or watching YouTube videos, we often forget that the time we spend on nonwork activities is still on the clock and can cost companies money. Over 75% of employees admitted to texting friends or family on company time, while 69.2% said they spent paid time socializing with co-workers. Taking snack or beverage breaks, checking the news, taking personal phone calls, and browsing the internet were also extremely common. 

Considering every employee surveyed admitted to doing at least one nonwork-related activity on their company’s time, it makes sense that very few actually viewed it as stealing. Compared to 42.6% of managers, only 23.2% of employees thought time theft counted as stealing from work. But with employees spending an average of 46 minutes per workday on tasks unrelated to their job, employers are paying for nearly 200 hours of free time each year – based on a 40-hour workweek, that’s essentially five weeks of paid vacation.

Which Theft Is Worse?

Despite the significant amount of time taken by employees, the majority of employees and managers thought tangible theft was worse than time theft. While 83.2% of employees and 78.9% of managers said stealing tangible items from work was worse than intangible theft, only 16.8% of employees and 21.1% of managers thought stealing time was the more severe crime. 

Managers may be less likely to point fingers at time theft because they can be guilty of it as well. Employees often model the behaviors of their superiors – if managers are seen texting, taking personal phone calls, or scrolling through social media, workers will follow in their footsteps. And when employees end up working through their scheduled lunch break or are contacted outside of work hours, it’s actually employers who are committing time theft.

Confronting Office Thieves

Petty theft in the workplace can be difficult to catch. Whether it’s a few minutes of personal time or some pens taken home, the crimes can be incredibly subtle. But sticky-fingered employees aren’t always in the clear. Forty-eight percent of managers had caught an employee stealing, and of those who had, 85.3% confronted that employee. Taking a pen or pencil may not elicit a response, but when the theft is data, technology, or a perpetual problem, petty theft can lead to unemployment – or even criminal charges.

Nearly 80% of hiring managers said stealing is an automatic fireable offense at their company. However, the rise in workplace theft doesn’t seem to have managers panicking. Only 22.1% of managers said employee theft was a major concern, while 35.6% said it was only a minor concern. However, managers might not be incredibly concerned because they have the right protocols in place. Adequate vetting of potential employees, a system of checks and balances, and even video surveillance can help minimize employee theft.

Stealing Is Not the Answer

Regardless of the items stolen, tangible or intangible, petty theft in the workplace happens. Employees tend to prefer easily replaceable items like pens, paper clips, and sticky notes, but they also like doing personal activities while on the clock. Unfortunately for them, managers aren’t lenient on stealing, and if you’re caught, you’re likely to be fired.

While employers have plenty of options for cutting down on employee theft, people who excuse their takings may need to think about why they’re doing it. If you feel you’re underpaid, your boss is rude, or you lack respect from your company, stealing isn’t the answer – finding a new job is. 

At, we believe you should have a job you actually want, and we’re here to help you get it. Whether you’re new to the job market or are tired of your toxic boss, our knowledge can help you secure and ace the interview and land the job. But don’t fret: Our advice won’t put you to sleep like those other blogs. Get fired up about your next job interview by visiting us online today.


We surveyed 698 current employees and 298 current managers about their thoughts and experiences with workplace theft. 

For the employee survey, respondents had to report being currently employed in an entry-level or intermediate position at their job. Respondents were 52.1% women and 47.9% men. The average age was 36.5 with a standard deviation of 11.3.

For the manager survey, respondents had to report being currently employed in a middle management position or higher. Respondents were 42.3% women and 57.7% men. The average age was 38.3 with a standard deviation of 10.9.

Employees were asked to rate how acceptable it was to steal from work in various situations. They were given the following options:

  • Extremely unacceptable
  • Unacceptable
  • Slightly unacceptable
  • Neither unacceptable nor acceptable
  • Slightly acceptable
  • Acceptable
  • Extremely acceptable

We condensed these into three groups: unacceptable, neither unacceptable nor acceptable, and acceptable. In our final visualization of the data, the percentage rating each situation as acceptable is presented.


The data presented in this project rely on self-reporting. Common issues with self-reported data include exaggeration and selective memory. For example, people could have exaggerated the amount of time they spent doing activities unrelated to work on company time, skewing the average. 

Fair Use Statement

Whether considered harmless or a major company issue, employee theft is something many businesses have to deal with. If someone you know would benefit from the information presented here, share it for any noncommercial reuse. Our only request is that you link back here so that people can view the study in its entirety and see the methodology. This also gives credit to our hardworking contributors.