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Service workplace theft strategic and contagious, study says

(uatp12 / Depositphotos.com)

(uatp12 / Depositphotos.com)

Sometimes workers steal. Sometimes they see coworkers stealing. A new study using gobs of data has found that restaurant workers who witness point-of-sale system theft by other workers may be more likely to steal themselves, but intervention by management can prevent others from joining in on pilferage.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and Oxford University looked at data from 5.7 million transactions from from a company that sold point-of-sale systems to 34 restaurant chains that had more than 1,000 locations. The systems could flag suspected instances of theft in restaurants by people with access to the POS system, sold as an extra add-on to the restaurants.

Some theft schemes are well-known in the restaurant industry. The National Restaurant Association estimates theft accounts for 4% of restaurant costs. The theft detection algorithm was very conservative because an erroneous finding of theft could be costly, so the researchers said their findings of theft were probably lower than what was actually happening in the restaurants.

The researchers had access to all the transaction data, regardless of whether the restaurant paid for the theft detection capability. They found that 56 percent of servers in the database committed theft at least once. They also found that servers who were exposed to peers who stole from the restaurant in their first five months of employment were more likely to habitually steal themselves.

They also found that when a worker steals more on a given day, their coworkers reduce their own theft that day perhaps as a response to the threat of detection by management. Theft was lower also when restaurants paid for the theft detection system.

When they did computer simulations with the data, they estimated that doubling a worker’s average theft would yield a 76% increase in a restaurant’s average theft loss.

They advise managers to fire “bad apples” who commit a lot of misconduct are more costly than their own behavior, because they influence workplace culture. They also recommend pairing new employees with experienced ones who don’t commit misconduct, so the new employees understand that theft isn’t a normal part of working at the restaurant.


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