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Research probes why hotel workers steal

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

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Workers in the hotel industry steal because it provides an adrenaline rush and makes up for low wages, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) suggests.

Employee theft costs companies in Australia an estimated $2 billion dollars annually, with 95 per cent of companies reporting some form of the behaviour and three-quarters of employees admitting to having stolen from work.

However, its prevalence in hotels is largely unreported, as the customer-intensive industry actively avoids association with theft.

To shed light on the problem, researchers from ECU and the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School came together to ask young workers why their colleagues steal.

“Studies have shown employee theft is most common among younger employees, particularly those between 21 and 30 years old,” said Dr Edmund Goh from ECU’s School of Business and Law.

“So we chose young hospitality students, born after 1995, who have been working full-time for at least 600 hours in various frontline hotel jobs.

“They are statistically more likely to witness theft in their peer group and have fresh eyes to notice workplace norms and behaviours.”

Thrills and low wages

Young workers reported that the most common motivation to steal was thrill seeking.

A reason for theft in the workplace is like cheating in exams, where your heart is pounding faster than a train. Not that I have done it, but it’s that feeling of not getting caught. (Student 14)

“This was surprising, because it suggests the problem is workplace culture more than genuine need,” Dr Goh said.

However, the second most cited reason was salary, with employees stealing to supplement their meagre wages, often taking food and sundry items.

Our pay is $14-$18 per hour. That is pretty low, especially when you have to pay for rent in the city. Therefore, taking bread and leftovers could help me save on meal expenses. (Student 5)

Third was revenge for perceived unfair treatment, such as young workers resenting incidents like long hours without overtime pay or managers failing to distribute tips.

Colleagues enable deviance

Participants said their work peers’ attitudes and behaviours had the biggest influence on decisions to steal.

Management was also influential, with students viewing even small gestures such as managers taking chocolate or beer from the bar as condoning thievery to some degree.

Most of us are followers. Monkey see, monkey do attitude. If other staff are doing it or can do it, why can’t we? This is very tempting and if you don’t do it, you feel you are losing out. (Student 6)

“The influence of peers and immediate managers suggests hotels need to actively reinforce ideas of fairness and positive actions so that workers moderate one another’s behaviours,” Dr Goh said.

“Managers should be firm about theft and have a zero-tolerance policy.”

“Hotels also need to manage the expectations of workers entering the industry by clearly communicating working hours, conditions and pay structures.

“This will allow people to be mentally prepared for their work experiences.”

Dr Goh adds that if workers want thrills, perhaps hotels should consider employee outings, such as skydiving or bungee jumping.

‘Theft in the hotel workplace: Exploring frontline employees’ perceptions towards hotel employee theft’ is published in Tourism and Hospitality Research.

This is part of a larger project currently underway on hotel theft.

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