While only one in 10 workers admit stealing from their employers, close to 40% of hiring managers say they have fired an employee for theft  at the office, according to a recent survey.

The survey, conducted by CareerBuilder.com, found that the most commonly purloined items were office supplies (15%), money (14%), and merchandise (11%).

Employers and those in the human-resources industry say employee theft represents a significant challenge for business owners, who often do not have the resources to devote to oversight.

"I spend much of my time interacting with small-business owners," said Michael Alter, president of SurePayroll, a Glenview, Ill.-based firm that manages payroll services for small businesses. "I've heard more than a few stories about employees walking off with inventory, tools, petty cash, stamps, etc."

Kevin Marasco, vice president of marketing for Vurv Technology, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based company that provides Web-based tools for workforce management, suspects the estimate of workplace theft may be slightly inflated. But he noted that theft is not an uncommon problem for Vurv's small-business clients.

"We find shrinkage to be a top business challenge with our smaller clients, especially for [businesses] with a large percentage of hourly workers," Marasco said.

More employees in the health-care, IT, and manufacturing industries admitted to stealing at the office than employees in retail, sales, and hospitality, according to the CareerBuilder survey.

Consequences to employees caught stealing vary depending upon the company. According to the survey, 45% of hiring managers would automatically fire  someone discovered stealing, while 7% would not fire the thief. Some 48% of hiring managers said they did not have a clear-cut policy regarding employee theft and would decide whether or not to fire an employee caught stealing based on the object stolen and the situation.

However, businesses can also make efforts to prevent such a situation from occuring in the first place. "If an envelope full of petty cash is left on a desk and it's stolen by an employee, the employee isn't the only one to blame," Alter said. "The person who left the cash on the desk shares some of the blame. Investments in theft prevention -- security cameras, locking desk drawers -- can be quite cheap."

One of the most important investments in theft prevention can also be an effective screening process for new employees. Background checks  are imperative, according to Alter.

"When it comes to hiring, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said.
Yet, for small businesses, evaluating employees can be a challenge. "They lack the people, processes and technology dedicated to thoroughly evaluate new hires and manage employee performance," Marasco said. "This can result in the hiring of workers who slip through the cracks in terms of ideal fit and qualifications, and who could have a higher likelihood to steal."

Providing employees with adequate compensation and improving morale can also remove the incentive to steal. "One of the biggest reasons employees steal from the companies they work for is they feel the company owes them," Marasco said. "Either because they are underpaid, underappreciated, or simply disengaged from mission of the company and have no personal stake in its success."

If an employee feels like a valued part of the company, he or she is less likely to steal, Alter added.

"Treating employees with respect," he said, "deters theft better than any lock and key."