Sunday, September 23, 2007


An office manager for a financial-services company has noticed that, every September, there is an unusual surge in the consumption of spiral notebooks, binders and colored pencils from the supply cabinet.

Chiefly, she says, these are requisitioned by executives who have school-age children. If it's OK for the executives to use company supplies for personal use, she wonders, isn't it all right for her to take a pair of scissors for use at home, if she needs one? Or a bottle of ibuprofen? Or a package of Sharpies?

Are both the executives and the office manager wrong to take office supplies? Or, if the executives pilfer, does that clear the way for others to pilfer as well? Or is it always wrong to take goods from the company office-supply cabinet for personal use?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Neal C White said...

Absolutely not! The rule that aplys is "There is no right way to do a wrong thing." The manager should also take the information found to the boss for further handling.

Anonymous said...

Of course stealing office(school?)supplies from your employer is wrong, and there is no difference in "rights to steal" between executive and clerks . . .

Webster had it right: look up stealing (" take the property of another...").


Jan Bohren

Anonymous said...

No, it is never appropriate to steal from your employer. Corporate theft is a major problem for corporations adversely affecting their “bottom lines.” Items purchased by corporations are for employee use in order to increase profitability versus personal use, whether for home projects or school supplies. Although superiors and executives exhibit unprofessional and unethical behaviors, such as “corporate theft,” subordinates must not imitate them. “Never do that that if everyone else did would destroy the world,” is the rule. In addition, “two wrongs do not make a right.”

Patrick Bouvier Fitzgerald Burris, Charlotte, NC

Unknown said...

I can see this from multiple angles:

1. Taking for yourself, what belongs to another without permission is theft.

2. The difference between taking a handful of school supplies vs. charging a $6000 shower curtain to the company is only a difference of degree. Frankly, there is a pandemic of upper management forgetting that they are employees and not owners of the businesses they run.

If you want to see real theft, see how upper management benefits from mergers and spin-offs. And they get these benefits regardless of how much the stock holders benefit.

3. The line between personal and corporate has become very blurred. When someone works a lot more than 40 hours a week (as most executives do) there is a real sense that the company is taking a bite out of their personal time. And time is money. Someone who has worked an extra 20 or 40 hours, and because of this, lacks time to shop for school supplies, can certainly argue that the extra time spent is more valuable than the cost of what they took.

Lines are further blurred by corporate travel, which executives do a lot of. Not only is lodging and transportation covered, but so are meals, laundry and entertainment. Some companies also pick up the tab for child and pet care expenses that occur while traveling. When someone is running a daily expense tab of several hundred dollars, it’s hard to worry about the value of a few notebooks and pencils.

4. Does this really hurt the company? Imagine each employee took $30 worth of materials per year. ( An amount that I would guess over states the cost). Would this really impact the companies financials? No!