Criminology Employee Theft
Jay Kennedy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0238


Employee theft is a type of crime that is unlike many other crimes primarily because the offenders have legitimate and often unobstructed access to the targets of theft. Employees are trusted as guardians of business property and resources, and in many cases they are actively engaged in protecting these resources from outsiders who want to steal from the business. The legitimacy that comes with employment provides a veil that can be used by an employee to hide their deviance. As employees gain greater levels of trust and responsibility within a business they gain ever greater opportunities to steal from the business. At the same time, they increasingly gain knowledge of theft prevention strategies, as well as the skills needed to hide their crimes and avoid detection. As a result, a unique pattern emerges where lower-level employee thefts tend to be shorter in duration, if not one-time events. For higher-level employees thefts are rarely one-time occurrences but rather tend to persist for a long time. It goes without saying that the longer a theft scheme persists the more harm that is done to the business. This creates another paradox in the nature of employee theft, as lower-level employees tend to be the most prevalent category of thieves—yet, they steal relatively small amounts. Higher-level employees tend to be less prevalent, yet they have the ability to steal much larger sums of money, thereby creating greater harms for victimized firms. Employees are paid to use their skills, talents, abilities, training and education to produce products that can be sold by the business for a profit. Ironically, the same skills that an employee thief uses to perform his or her job on a daily basis serves as the essential criminal toolkit that is relied upon to victimize their employer. Empirical work on employee theft has been undertaken by criminologists, psychologists, organizational behavior scholars, as well as researchers in the fields of organizational strategy and entrepreneurship. This research has explored the individual, organizational, cultural, and social origins of theft motivations, organizational responses to theft, and the impact of theft on people, organizations and society. Recently this research has been growing increasingly transnational in nature. In addition to these works, industry groups and governmental agencies actively promote best practices, and instructional tools aimed at helping businesses mitigate their exposure to employee theft.

Foundational Literature

The earliest literature exploring issues of employee theft date backs to Colquhoun 1770, which simply sought to bring public attention to this problem. Following this work, Beckwith 1807 articulated the author’s thoughts and solutions to the rapidly growing practice of employee theft from charitable organizations. A century later, J. R. R. 1907 discussed the many financial harms attendant to employee theft, while also commenting on the inappropriateness of using business funds to reimburse personal expenses. Since the mid-20th century most employee theft literature has tended to focus on specific types of theft or to explore this issue from the perspective of a specific industry. Accordingly, there are few works that give a comprehensive overview of the topic, particularly when it comes to acknowledging the impact of theft on the organization and organization members. However, there are several works that do give a good introduction to the topic, while at the same time identifying the factors that lead employees to steal, and suggesting ways in which this behavior can be addressed. While Hair, et al. 1976 was among the first to offer a formal, structured critique of the employee theft problem, foundational works that develop comprehensive overviews of employee theft are to be found in later works. Hollinger and Clark 1983 describes the results of interviews with managers and employees from multiple industries, identifying important antecedents to theft, as well as suggested organizational remedies. Mars 1982, on workplace crime, is one of the most well-known treatises on the issue and offers a foundational typology of employee thieves that neatly categorizes their motivations and rationalizations. Merriam 1977 provides a broad overview of the problem by exploring the personal and professional origins of deviant motivations and developing four structured categories of organization responses. Ditton 1977 provides an excellent overview of the processes involved in employee theft from the perspective of the employee. Henry 1978 gives a sound treatment of the wide range of behaviors that have the potential to be considered employee theft, which can all reasonably be considered workplace deviance. Drawing upon foundational employee theft research, Greenberg and Barling 1996 provides a detailed overview of employee theft touching upon definitional issues, antecedents, and strategies for the prevention of theft.

  • Beckwith, W. 1807. A plan to prevent all charitable donations for the benefit of poor persons in the several parishes of England and Wales from loss, embezzlement, non-application, misapplication, fraud and abuse, in future. London: Cox, Son and Baylis.

    One of the earliest attempts to systematically assess the opportunity structure for employee theft and to develop practical solutions aimed at preventing these crimes. Beckwith’s focus on charitable organizations is one that has been greatly overlooked by current researchers, yet his arguments should incentivize current researchers to pursue this line of inquiry.

  • Colquhoun, P. 1770. A treatise on the commerce and police of the River Thames: Containing an historical view of the trade port of London; and suggesting means for preventing the deprivations thereon, by a legislative system of river police. London: H. Baldwin.

    Colquhoun was not directly interested in addressing issues of employee theft, yet he spends considerable space discussing a variety of illicit practices taking place on the Thames River under the guise of legitimate commerce, including pilferage and deviant practices aimed at customers.

  • Ditton, J. 1977. Part-time crime: An ethnography of fiddling and pilferage. London: Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-03205-1

    An excellent example of early qualitative research into employee theft that traces the factors most important to the development of an employee thief. Discusses the structure of the crime, neutralizations, and techniques used to hide offenses. Accounts highlight theoretical overlap with other forms of occupational crimes that victimize consumers.

  • Greenberg, L., and J. Barling. 1996. Employee theft. In Trends in organizational behavior. Vol. 3. Edited by C. L. Cooper and D. M. Rousseau, 49–64. New York: Wiley.

    An overview of individual and organizational theories related to employee theft. Important contribution comes from the authors’ discussion of person-organization interactions that precipitate employee theft, as well as their discussion of theft prevention strategies derived from organizational theory.

  • Hair, J. F., R. F. Bush, and P. Busch. 1976. Employee theft: Views from two sides. Business Horizons 19.6: 25–29.

    DOI: 10.1016/0007-6813(76)90005-7

    Insightful early study of employee theft within the retail industry that explores employers’ perceptions of what constitutes employee theft, employers’ perspectives on why employees steal, and the types of theft prevention strategies employers use most often.

  • Henry, Stuart. 1978. The hidden economy: The context and control of borderline crime. London: Martin Robertson.

    A good overview of property crimes committed against a business by its employees. The text describes a wide range of acts that can fall under the umbrella of employee theft yet are not always considered to be theft by employees, employers, or society. Important for the manner in which Henry highlights the situational use of the term “employee theft.”

  • Hollinger, R. C., and J. P. Clark. 1983. Theft by employees. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Seminal work on employee theft that explores the issue across industries and across organizational levels. Focuses on the personal and organizational origins of theft intentions and provides sound organizational guidance on how to respond to and work to prevent employee thefts.

  • J. R. R. 1907. Intent in embezzlement by corporate official. Michigan Law Review 5.7: 559–562.

    DOI: 10.2307/1273467

    Despite the fact that the author’s name is not given in the original publication, this treatise chronicles the factual details of several incidents of employee theft, while at the same time recognizing related and relevant organizational deviance. This work is important for its discussion of employee frauds as regularly occurring events.

  • Mars, G. 1982. Cheats at work. Winchester, MA: Allen and Unwin.

    Important foundational work categorizing employee thieves into four distinct types that reflect differences in their attitudes, ideologies, and social perspectives. Excellent descriptive account of how employee thieves commit their crimes and rationalize their behavior.

  • Merriam, D. H. 1977. Employee theft. Hackensack, NJ: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

    Early call for empirical research into employee theft, with a particular focus on research that identifies the breadth and extent of employee theft. The author undertakes an important discussion of the importance of exploring organizational factors as a way to understand and ultimately prevent employee theft.

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