NEW YORK (CNNfn) - A new study says you may be working in a den of thieves.
An overwhelming 79 percent of workers admit they have or would consider stealing from their employers, according to a survey released last week by forensic accounting firm Michael G. Kessler & Associates.
And the loot is far more sophisticated than mere pens and paper clips.
Computer software, office appliances and accounting books are all prime targets for would-be pilferers and grafters.
"It's across the board," John Case, president of security management consulting firm John Case & Associates, said. "Wherever you have something that's worth something, a certain percentage of people will steal. It can be anything -- copper in a junk yard, high-tech information that competitors would buy and everything in between."
Many employers write off these losses as the cost of doing business, but what they might not realize is that workplace pilfering can cost them their livelihood. One out of three companies that go bankrupt each year do so as a result of employee theft, costing businesses between $60 billion and $120 billion a year, according to prior studies.
Workplace theft is prevalent, some experts say, because many employers overlook the symptoms of theft and fail to put in place adequate checks and balances.
There are many misperceptions about who steals and why they do it. For the most part, thieves run the demographic gamut.
"It goes all the way to the top," said Michael Kessler, president and chief executive of Michael G. Kessler & Associates. "I've seen it from corporate vice presidents to janitorial staff."
Although workplace theft is probably somewhat more widespread among blue collar workers, the damage done by more senior employees is usually far greater.
"The ability to steal greater amounts of money or products is much bigger just by virtue of the status and ability of the manager to steal and cover it up," said Case. "The whiter the collar, the bigger the dollar."
Employees also rarely steal because they need to.
"A lot of people say it's because they need the money, but I don't think that's the case," said Kessler. "It's often vindictiveness. Or they see other people doing it and believe they can get away with it, too."
In fact, only 8 percent of respondents in the Kessler study said they steal because they need to. And 49 percent said they steal out of greed, while 43 percent said they do it to get back at their employer.
Case argues many workers swipe company property simply because they can.
"The real reason people steal is opportunity. When companies make it easy through lack of control, an atmosphere of theft is created," said Case.
Many managers tend to disregard inventory shortages, declining profits and rumors of dishonesty partly in the hopes of avoiding uncomfortable confrontations, says Case. Employers also tend to find it difficult to believe their employees would steal from them, so they do not put restrictions in place.
Finding thieves in your midst
Pinpointing thieves can be difficult if you don't know what to look for.
Ironically, an especially loyal employee who never takes a vacation or sick day may be trying to hide shady work habits.
"They've got their scheme down and the minute someone else comes in and sees it, they'll be found out," Kessler said. Unfortunately, these types of employees are often the hardest to accuse because their dedication is so highly valued.
Employees who frequently ridicule the firm or whose lifestyles have suddenly improved with no logical explanation may also be suspect.
Other telltale signs include missing or untraceable documents, excessive credits or voids, and inventory found near exits, loading docks or restrooms.
Ask yourself if:
unreasonably large quantities of supplies are being ordered.
there are alterations on employee time sheets, after supervisors have signed them.
invoices appear as copies and not originals.
Although many of these tip-offs may be legitimately explained, the prevalence of this type of behavior may indicate a theft problem or potential for a problem.
Many employers make the mistake of not being suspicious enough. Signs of theft are often misinterpreted as carelessness, incompetence or inexperience on the part of the employee.
"You've got to keep an open mind that an employee will steal," Kessler said.
Suspicion should not, however, translate into paranoia.
Both Case and Kessler agree that audio or video surveillance is generally unnecessary and ineffective.
Cameras are unlikely to pick up on theft since would-be thieves can stay out of their range. More importantly, they make employees uneasy and are likely to cause workplace tensions and morale problems.
"The correct approach is a business-friendly one," Case said. "You don't want to make people feel like Big Brother is watching."
However, putting a prevention program into place is a good idea, since an existing problem is only likely to worsen.
"It starts out small, but it always grows as (thieves) get bolder and bolder," Case said. "It's definitely cancerous as well. When employees see others stealing and getting away with it, they'll do it, too."
Pre-employment screenings can be an effective deterrent. While the Kessler study found that only 5 percent of those who stole had a criminal record for a theft-related offense, background checks may yield other clues. They might reveal whether a job seeker was fired for stealing at a previous place of employment or whether someone otherwise lied on his or her application, as an overwhelming number of applicants do, according to Kessler.
A security audit of your business operations also can help employers identify and determine risks. Initiating stricter universal security guidelines, such as requiring two signatures on checks or having a back-up person look at accounting and inventory records, can cut down on pilfering. It is important that everyone is subject to the same security measures to avoid tensions and resentment between managers and less senior employees.
Educating supervisors and employees about the negative impact theft can have on the company may also help. By soliciting staff support up front, subsequent loss prevention efforts will be met with acceptance, rather than alienation and resistance, says Case.
Finally, anonymous tip programs may compel honest employees to volunteer information about office theft without being marked as a snitch.
"Employees steal to the extent management permits it," said Case. "
There's no shortcut to prevent it, you have to remove the opportunity, create awareness and achieve their support."