6 responses »

  1. T says:

    I was just starting out in the workplace. I worked long hours for an unappreciative employer. I got screwed out of a bonus. Just being there made me angry, some days. I thought taking something back would make me feel better, less resentful. I even rationalized I’d do my job better if I felt better compensated. So I took a roll of tape. And some pens and Post-Its, though I told myself I needed those to do my assignments at home. But after a while, that attitude of entitlement began to grow, until I was feeling it was fine to do such things.

    I knew it was wrong. Really, really wrong. And I wanted to make amends. In the end I took my moral code in my own hands and just put in extra hours unpaid until I felt I’d worked off my debt, but I never told my employer what I’d done.

    Please provide your suggestions.

  2. JS says:

    I conclude that it is unethical to steal office supplies for one’s personal use.

    First, this action does not generalize. If everyone stole office supplies for their own use because it was easy to do, office managers would start monitoring supplies and supplies would become harder to steal. Or, if everyone stole office supplies because they were free, office managers might begin charging for the supplies.

    Secondly, stealing office supplies doesn’t maximize overall utility. Though it may provide utility to the thief in the form a free stapler or printer cartridge, it decreases company profits and may have the long-term effect of leading to cutbacks, whether these are salary cutbacks, personnel cutbacks, or otherwise.

    Finally, it does not pass the virtue test because the thief is not acting with integrity. To use the definition of integrity, which is to become whole, taking company supplies for personal use does not make one whole. Rather, it implies that one is acting without honesty.

    I had an interesting situation in one of my past jobs which is parallel to this one. Though I was in a junior position which did not pay a high salary, I was given a company credit card. Everyone else on my level was also given a company credit card. Quite frequently, my colleagues went out to lunch without a specific business purpose and charged it to their company cards. I always felt uncomfortable when they did this because I thought the expense was gratuitous. I found a way to ask my boss about it without revealing the fact that my coworkers were charging their lunches. His response validated their actions. He said that because we did not make a lot of money, we should feel free to charge things within reason. Knowing the precarious financial position of the company, I felt further conflicted about his input. It seemed very wrong to me to use the company credit cards for expenses that weren’t directly related to work, even for lunch among co-workers. Can anyone comment?

    • NM says:

      As you point out in your own dilemma, stealing office supplies and taking advantage of corporate credit cards are very similar activities. Both involve abuse and misuse of company resources. To complicate matters, in your situation the company was in a tough financial situation.

      Applying the generalization test: if everyone at the company starts charging the company credit card for non-work related activities, office managers might change the policy. For example, every charge must be approved by a controller, or spending limits might be imposed. This means that the activity of your coworkers fails the generalization test.

      Your coworkers might argue that their utility increases when they do not have to pay for their own meals. However, if the spending is rampant and substantial enough, this behavior might contribute to the closing of the company. The decrease in utility from losing a job is far greater than the increase of a free meal. This means that their behavior fails the utility test as well.

      In a previous job I faced a similar situation. My office would provide dinner for any employee working late (past 7 pm). Every morning, the office manager would take a quick survey of how many people were planning to work late and order food accordingly. The assumption was that if you are working til 7 pm, you have already worked at least an 8 hour day (and have been compensated for that time). My question is, would it be ethical to simply work til 7 pm, have a free dinner, then stop working? How many “extra” hours would you need to work before you could ethically have a free dinner?

      • John Hooker says:

        On the matter of the free dinner, the boss is offering it to anyone who works late, i.e., “past 7 pm.” So presumably the question is whether working to 7:01 pm is enough. There is an implied agreement between NM and the boss, and the terms of the agreement are vague (how late is late?). One way to deal with vagueness is to apply a counterfactual test: Would I be willing to tell the boss that I worked until 7:01 pm? If so, then I am within the terms of the agreement, and working to 7:01 for a free dinner is ethical.

    • John Hooker says:

      Theft of office supplies or anything else, merely for personal convenience, is unethical because it is not generalizable. If everyone stole other people’s property whenever it is convenient, there would be no concept of property. It would be useless to steal something, because someone else would just take it. The point of stealing something is to make it my property rather than someone else’s. This is impossible if no one respects property.

      However, suppose I am stealing for more specific reasons: I don’t like my employer, and I can get away with stealing from the employer as a form of retaliation. This isn’t generalizable, either. If everyone stole from people they don’t like, and this were universal practice, those people would take precautions. Workplaces, in particular, would have strict controls to prevent theft by unhappy employees. Many workplaces with poor employee relations already have such policies. Then I would no longer be able to get away with stealing.

      A comment on the utilitarian test. As NM points out, stealing office supplies may well increase overall utility. The employee may gain more than the company loses. A general pattern of employee theft may cause more harm than good, but that’s irrelevant to the utilitarian test, which looks only at the consequences of a particular action. The theft is still unethical, however, because it fails the generalization test.

      As for charging the company credit card, there is a similar case in this blog. However, the present case is somewhat different because the boss more-or-less gives permission. First, there is the legal issue. I understand that if the boss is acting beyond his/her authority, and a reasonable person would suspect this, then you could theoretically be guilty of a crime (embezzlement). Perhaps a lawyer can comment on this. Aside from the legal issue, both you and the boss could get in trouble with the company at some point. So prudence alone may dictate, on utilitarian grounds, that you should play it safe.

      If it can be established that liberal use of the credit card is not a crime, then you must decide whether you can rationally believe it is consistent with your employment agreement. Probably you can, because it is likely that the same circumstances that make it rational to believe the boss is within authority would also make it rational to believe you are acting within your employment agreement.

      However, given that the company has a precarious financial position, liberal use of the credit card may not be generalizable for that reason. I realize that some employees are already using the card for lunch, etc., but you have to ask if you can rationally believe that you would still achieve your purpose (saving money) if this practice were universal among employees. You would not achieve your purpose if this would cause the company to go under, or even to tighten up on the use of credit cards.

      So taking advantage of your boss’s generosity would have to pass several legal and ethical hurdles before you could decide it is OK.

  3. Faith Smith says:

    But the real question is – if a company refuses to supply you with the office supplies you need for work, and you have to take your own money and buy it for yourself- is the company stealing from you?

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