The Camel’s Nose

The statistics vary from study to study, but most agree that more than two out of three of us have stolen something from work.

For most of us, it is small things.

Pens, pencils, and paper clips are pilfered all year long. There are seasonal patterns, too. In August, parents steal back-to-school supplies. In December, when holiday gifts need wrapping, tape thefts go up.

Psychologists say taking office supplies isn’t even thought of as stealing these days.

Stealing from work is so normal that most of us see it as socially acceptable – if it’s small things.

We convince ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in our particular circumstances, such as “it’s okay to take this paper because I print so many documents at home.”

Why do we do it?

Forbes says when we start new jobs, we are excited during the honeymoon phase. As long as employers keep up their part of the deal, we are happy, committed – and honest. 

Part of this new deal is formal (our written contract), and part of it is informal. Psychologists say we form a psychological contract with our employers based on our expectations of the workplace and the job. This a tricky area, because these expectations are often tacit or implicit.

When we believe that our employer is not meeting those expectations, or if we feel we have been treated unfairly, we perceive our employer to have breached the psychological contract.

When this happens, we become resentful and we feel it is acceptable to take things from the office – to make up for what is “rightfully ours.”

Do you believe in the slippery slope?

The argument says when we allow something relatively harmless today, we have taken the first step towards accepting something unthinkable. Its cousins are the thin end of the wedge and the camel’s nose in the tent.

The wedge refers to a minor change that leads to something larger and more undesirable. The camel’s nose is a visual metaphor for how permitting a small, seemingly harmless act opens the door to far worse things.

Bernie Madoff, sentenced to 150 years in prison for orchestrating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, explained it this way: “It starts out with you taking a little bit, maybe a few hundred or a few thousand. You get comfortable with that and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.”

Many employees see the office supply cabinet as a cookie jar without a lid.

Because supplies are there for the taking, we take them. Psychologically, knowing no one is watching makes it easier. 

So lock up the supplies, put someone in charge, and come up with a simple procedure for requesting them.

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