Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Do you steal from work?

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Employee fraud and employee theft are significant problems for businesses, and despite the well-reported convictions, you'd have to presume that much of it remains undetected. Shelley Bridgeman discusses.
Do you use office stationary for personal use?Photo / Thinkstock
Do you use office stationary for personal use?Photo / Thinkstock

Judging from a couple of recent court appearances, it's clearly open season on employers. There must be something about office work that brings out the worst in some people and makes them defraud their bosses.

An Auckland woman used her position as secretary to steal more than $400,000 from her employer over four years. She would put cheques in a pile of paperwork hoping, I guess, that her boss would sign them on auto-pilot. Once signed, she would bank them. It's believed she spent the money on restaurant meals, luxury clothing, cosmetics, a Mercedes and a wedding.

And, in Hawkes Bay, an office administrator stole over $660,000 from her employer. Evidently, "she created hundreds of fake invoices to be paid into her own accounts". The old fake invoice trick is a favourite way for trusted staff members to fleece employers. I recall many such instances being reported over the years.

In the 90s I (consecutively) ran the advertising departments of two of the country's largest retailers. Part of these roles involved approving monthly bills for payment. In my most recent job I was regularly signing off dozens of individual invoices ranging anywhere from $100 to in excess of $250,000. I was well aware of the responsibility I'd been given and never abused this position of trust, but I was also conscious that someone who was wired differently or who was under financial pressure or had delusions of grandeur could succumb to the temptation to line their own pockets by first creating and then authorising a faux invoice.

I imagine you'd start really modestly with, say, an invoice for $5 and then, once that remained undetected, you'd slowly ramp up the value until it reached the thousands - and then you'd be hooked and you wouldn't stop until you were arrested.

I remember discussing the limits of company theft with my first boss, the late Alan Martin of Wellington-based electrical appliance retailer L.V. Martin & Son. He asked my opinion on whether taking a company envelope for personal use was stealing. With all the confidence of a 22-year-old, I replied that if I happened to be at work when I required an envelope then I didn't really see the harm of taking one from the firm when they had thousands of them.

(A.D., as everybody called him, considered himself to be an honorary member of the advertising team. He'd work alongside us all day, take us out for weekly lemon chicken at the Chinese restaurant in Johnsonville and once even unbuttoned his shirt to show us his heart-surgery scar - so my answer was candid rather than the sanitised version you'd normally give a company owner.)

But A.D.'s response was unequivocal. As far as he was concerned, stealing is stealing no matter how innocuous it might seem: there's no acceptable level of theft. I think it's a message that resonated with me and perhaps it's where my own zero tolerance for dodgy activity originated.

Employee fraud and employee theft are significant problems for businesses, and despite the well-reported convictions, you'd have to presume that much of it remains undetected. There are sure to be staff members right now ripping off the companies they work for. PVL, a company offering employers background screening for prospective staff members, says that "almost all employee fraud in New Zealand is committed by longer-serving personnel (because they have learned how to circumvent procedures)".

According to Action Fraud, the UK's national fraud reporting centre, "the typical profile of an insider fraudster is a long serving, trusted employee, who works long hours and who is reluctant to take their annual leave". Since often "[a]larm bells are raised by suspicious bosses and co-workers who take on the work of cheating employees and notice things that are not quite right" the fraudsters need to stand guard to ensure their deceit remains undetected.

At a time when they are flush with funds it's quite ironic that these rip-off artists are unable to use their ill-gotten gains on luxury travel and getting away from it all. It's weirdly fitting that in their attempt to presumably gain the freedoms afforded by large sums of money, they've effectively chained themselves to their office desk even more firmly than before.

What's your take on employee fraud? Why do some people betray their employers? Is it sometimes just too easy to do? What measures should be taken to make it more difficult? Would you steal a company envelope?

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Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

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