What to Do If You Get Caught Stealing at Work

Stealing from work is a big no-no. Here's what to do if you fell into the trap.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Worker caught stealing at work

Stealing from work is completely unethical!

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, 75% of US employees have stolen at least once from an employer. With such high rates, it’s not surprising that many employees find themselves in tricky situations with the law.

So, even if you think no one will notice that pen going missing or snacks disappearing from the breakroom, it is still considered as theft, and there are enormous consequences to face for even the smallest crime.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar position (which is probably why you’ve wound up here) or if you’re thinking of pinching something at work, you might want to think twice!

Here, we uncover what could count as theft at work, what to do if you get caught stealing at work, and the potential consequences you could face.

What counts as theft at work

Stealing from work, no matter how small, is a violation and qualifies as theft. The violations can range from stealing office supplies, such as pens or notepads or even printing off personal documents to take home — all classed as theft. It can even go as far as stealing from the cash register when your boss is not looking or not logging a sale and pocketing the cash.

Theft can also be qualified as taking some retail inventory; you think your employer won’t notice because it hasn’t been logged yet. To be honest, they might not, but it’s still considered stealing. If you’ve exaggerated a business expense to pocket the difference? You guessed it — stealing.

While that type of theft may be clear and easier to understand, let’s look at the theft that you may not notice as stealing, but is stealing all the same. Maybe you aren’t physically stealing anything, so you think you couldn’t possibly be lumped in this category. So, what about data theft? If you’ve taken your employer’s proprietary information or trade secrets to benefit your own use without their permission, face it, you’ve stolen.

Perhaps you work in a service industry and believe you’re entitled to those services for free since you work there, that can be classified as stealing at work. Unless your employer explicitly said you were entitled to these items in your contract or listed them out in your employee handbook, don’t count it as free.

The consequences

So, even if you think no one will notice that pen going missing or work snacks disappearing from the break room, it is still considered as theft, and there are enormous consequences to face for even the smallest crime. Face it, going against company policy comes with consequences. Find out what charges you could face below.

1. Gross misconduct

The starting point for employee theft is gross misconduct, meaning that you can be immediately dismissed without any prior warning.

Alternatively, you’ll be suspended until an official investigation is carried out. If this is the case, the investigation will consider factors, such as if the offense was severe enough to break the contractual agreement, the number of stolen goods and the process that the HR department followed.

In some cases, alternative solutions might be proposed, including your demotion and your transfer to another department or location.

2. Termination

If you’ve been caught and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, like if you’re caught on camera or they can physically prove you were the one stealing, you’ll be immediately terminated for your actions. At this point, you should just apologize and walk away quietly. There’s no wrongful termination here, you did the crime. Don’t think about objecting to the company’s decision because you’ll only make matters worse, and you could end up facing a courtroom, too.

Your employer will most likely want to make an example out of you, so firing you will prove that they don’t tolerate employee fraud in their organization.

3. Criminal charges

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to repay what you’ve stolen and walk away from the situation altogether, but if the company decides to seek criminal justice, you could be facing jail time. Usually, an employer will notify the authorities when you have been accused of theft. That said, if you weren’t approached by the police when you were fired, you could still expect a visit later down the line.

Even if your manager doesn’t consult the police department, they can still go beyond employee policy and notify the authorities. However, if you do what your employer suggests, you can avoid criminal charges for petty theft.

Things to do

Don’t panic, while things may seem bleak right now, there are still actions that you can take if you’ve stolen from your work.

1. Consult an attorney

Before you do anything, seek legal advice. Your best bet would be to consult an employment law lawyer who will be able to advise you on the steps you should take. If there have already been charges pressed against you, however, it’s best to contact a criminal defense attorney. They will present the options that you have and will advise on the potential agreements to help you move forward.

Remember, at this point, you’ve done the crime, trust the advice of your attorney, and do what they say. If it’s the early stages of the theft, they may advise you to follow the steps we have outlined below for you. Keep in mind, if the theft is a large amount of product or money, it may be time for you to move forward with the attorney officially, as the case may go to court, and you could avoid any further consequences.

2. Review your employee handbook

Make sure you read through your company’s employee handbook, where you will find information on theft, misconduct and the relevant disciplinary procedures. Every employee should have been required to do this and have some sort of acceptance, such as a signature or email confirmation, when they were hired. By signing this, you’ve accepted whatever is detailed in the handbook, even if you’ve never read it.

In most cases, theft will include immediate suspension pending a thorough investigation; there’s nothing you can do about that. If you’ve consulted your attorney, they will tell you the same thing. You’re not fighting for your life here, you stole. It’s time to allow your organization the time to do the investigation and accept the punishment that comes along with that.

3. Talk to your manager

Regardless of your reasons, stealing is a sackable offense, and once you’ve already done it, you can’t undo it.

Your next course of action is to talk to your manager and explain your motives. Although you won’t be let off the hook entirely, you can lighten the consequences if you have a semi-acceptable reason.

At this point, it’s also advisable to try and negotiate a deal so that no criminal charges are brought against you. You will need to pay back what you’ve stolen, but it’s better than facing jail time and expensive legal fees.

4. Admit to theft

Stealing in the workplace doesn’t always involve expensive items; exaggerating your expenses, using company ink and paper for personal use or even doing other work on company time is considered as theft. And if your boss already has proof on record, you can do nothing else but own up to your mistakes.

5. Apologize

Never underestimate the power of an apology for your wrongdoings — you know it’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong — so, it’s time to confess to stealing at work. If at all possible, you should first do this in person when you’re confronted with theft and then follow up with a formal apology letter. Let them know that you will reimburse them for out-of-pocket loss and that you regret stealing in the first place.

Remorse will go a long way at this point; if you feel bad for what you did, tell them. Be genuine and honest. Even though it’s most likely not going to change the outcome, it will help you rest easier at night knowing you owned up to your mistakes professionally.

6. Resign

There’s no point in fighting the inevitable. At this point, you’ve consulted a lawyer, reviewed your policy, talked to your manager, admitted to the theft, and apologized; maybe it's also time to throw in the towel. It might be better to resign and submit your resignation letter, than to wait to be dismissed by your employer, then for future employment you can say you quit instead of being fired for stealing.

Keep in mind, if you do steal, it’s not recommended to go to your manager as a reference for your next position. Cut your losses and treat it as a lesson of what not to do in the future.

7. Don’t sign anything

If you’re caught stealing, you’ll most likely be asked to sign a civil agreement to pay back what is due, and rightfully so. However, before signing anything, you should consult your attorney that you’ve either been working with all along or consulted prior. You’re trying to protect yourself here from any future legal action. The company may not wish to press charges now, but what if this keeps happening at your work from other employees? Maybe down the line, they will want to prosecute, and you’ll be lumped into that category.

It's best to avoid signing anything, no matter how good it may look or sound, without consulting your attorney. At this point, as mentioned above, your best option is to hand in a resignation letter and to move on by finding new employment opportunities.

8. Find new employment

If you’ve followed all the above steps, it’s time to move on and find new employment. Perhaps this is the time you evaluate changing careers all together and pursue that pipe dream that you may be able to make a reality now that you have the time.

Keep in mind, your loss of employment may have come suddenly, so you are probably not financially ready for the time off. Put yourself out there for available jobs that can help bridge the financial gap for you right now. You may have to take a job that isn’t your dream job just to pay the bills right now. Remember, it doesn’t have to be your forever career.

9. Be honest with your new employer

It may come up, the dreaded question, “Why did you leave your last job?” It may be easy to think you can just avoid it all together and move on, but it’s best to be honest here, as your new employer will appreciate it. Let them know you made a mistake that in your current role you could not move on from and made the choice to leave.

If they have further questions, they may reach out to your previous employer, and for some jobs, this may keep you from getting the position at first, but don’t lose hope. You’ll find the job that appreciates the humanity and that we all make mistakes but recognizes it’s how you learn from them that will set you apart as an employee.

10. Learn from your mistake

Once you’ve landed the job, whether it’s the in-between role to get you by until you find that new role you’ve been dreaming about, make sure you don’t steal! Take the time to research your company’s theft policy and see what you’re entitled to as an employee and what you’re not. If you’re working in food, see if you’re actually allowed to take chips from the chip maker on your shift or have a complementary bowl of soup once you’re off the clock. Find the truth in the policy and stick to it!

Your new employer took a chance on you, knowing your past mistake with your previous employer. Make sure you show them you’ve overcome that mistake and have no intention of repeating it in the future.

Key takeaways

As you can see, stealing even the smallest item is detrimental to your entire career, although there are some contentious companies who hire felons. So, if you’re considering stealing, take a minute to look at the consequence and see if it’s actually worth it. It’s important to remember the following if you’ve found yourself in this situation:

  • Remember what counts as theft at work. Theft can range from stealing pens or paperclips to cash from the cash drawer and taking inventory. It’s all stealing from your employer.
  • There will be consequences. No matter how small, stealing always comes with consequences.
  • Follow the ten recommended things to do listed above to ensure you’re protected after the stealing has occurred and allow yourself to move forward.

Stealing at work doesn’t have to become your pattern. Break away from that mistake, don’t lump yourself with the greatest thieves in the world, and don’t get caught stealing again.

Have you ever been caught stealing at work? What happened? Share your story in the comments and help others in the same situation.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on 27 May 2019 and contains contributions by staff writer Shalie Reich.