Class, expenses and employee theft

When I read…

How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

…from Tyler Cowen, nothing clicked. At the time, I didn’t notice the classism, but now I do. He was writing in the context of this Crooked Timber post on the authoritarian nature of the work place. Tyler defended the employer as unfairly maligned and wished to point out that employers had to deal with the malfeasance of their staff. The blade cuts two ways you might say.

In July, reading that, I’d only ever really done blue collar jobs; working in cafes, callcentres, warehouses and shops. Now, slightly over three months into a proper white collar job, the naked classism of Tyler’s comment comes out.

First, mea maxima culpa, I admit that when I worked in a cafe I would sometimes not mop the floor at the end of the day, as instructed. Infamy! When I worked in a wine shop, I would have a few beers after work. Intrigue! Since working in an office I haven’t so much as pilfered a packet of paper or pocketed a pack of post-its. Once I watched the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy while doing three consecutive night shifts in a warehouse. I worked the whole time too, but I don’t think it was strictly kosher…

Now I have graduated to bone fide office work, things have got a whole lot more insidious. You all know what I mean. Example one, on the fifth day of work, when getting a taxi in Solihull, my taxi driver offered to fill out my receipt for £8 not £5. Last week, when having a works dinner my receipt for a bottle of wine came back, hand written, with “Food: £20” scrawled across it. For, food is a lot easier to expense than booze, everyone needs food right?

I have only had two opportunities to defraud my employer and both times, without my asking, everyone involved assumed that was what I wanted. In fact, they were more than complicit, they almost forced it on me. I said “no thanks, £5” to the taxi driver and luckily my work won’t mind buying my wine. It was good wine.

These experiences don’t point to any great fraud, or dangerous conspiracy. Just a business culture in which slightly ripping off your employer is fine. The very same gents involved would be shocked, shocked if Patty nicked a pair of knickers from Primark at the end of her shitty shift. Think about it for a second and you see how arsebackwards this way of thinking is.

Everyday people working in shops, restaurants, factories, warehouses and so on have the option of stealing and… just don’t. In vast, overwhelming numbers people do not steal. Poor people doing crap jobs are surrounded by nice things all the time which are very easy to steal. Relatively well off people get offered nice perks only occasionally, and there is a culture of taking a little more than you should. If there is anything which deserves moral opprobrium it isn’t the shop clerk. I applaud their self control.

While the vast majority of employee theft is perpetrated by a small minority of probably not very nice people. Exaggerated expenses claims seem to be a much wider spread phenomenon, lots of people all skimming a little for themselves. There might be a few bad apples working in shops, but it feels like most of the better class of people in business are a little bit rotten. They might not feel like their doing anything wrong, but that is the point. Being wealthy gives you access to a better class of crime, a cleaner conscience and milder penalties.

Twice I have reasonably had the opportunity to claim expenses and twice I have almost been forced to steal from my employer. There may well be an employee theft problem, but I’m not sure it is poor people who have the problem.