Stressing about stealing from my job

Dear Alice,

I have a job at a typical retail place. This place has no cameras so I steal on a regular basis. I don't think I would be stealing if they had any sort of security. I feel like a criminal, which I am, but is it not their fault as well for having such lax security? And also should I even stop, because even though it is wrong, I am making a hefty profit and getting many things for free, but I know it's wrong...I dunno what to do!!

— Klepto

Dear Klepto, 

It seems like you’re grappling with an experience similar to the age-old question of, “if a tree falls in a forest but no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” In this case, the question is more around the morality of stealing: is it morally wrong to steal if no one catches you? Morality can be difficult to make a finite judgement around given the multitude of various individual contexts, experiences, and personal values. One part that does apply to every person in the United States is the law, which varies state by state and depending on the value of stolen goods when it comes to theft. Regardless of if fear of the law and its implications for accountability provide any motivation or meaning for you personally, it seems like you may also be experiencing some internal tension related these behaviors that may be producing a level of stress for you. With that, in addition to learning about the law, it may also be helpful to consider your personal values, the ways in which you consistently express them, and think about the ways in which certain types of stress may come from the interplay of your personal values.  

First, considering the laws and policies that govern the various parts of the US and the behaviors that are and aren’t allowed can help facilitate the most informed decision-making possible around any behavior. However, under most state laws, a store has the legal right to stop and detain a suspect if they have "probable cause." This means that they have seen the suspect take the merchandise, conceal it, move or modify the item or fail to pay for the item before leaving the store. The store also has the right to demand the return of the merchandise, to ban the offender from their store for a period of time, to prosecute the offender criminally, and charge the offender with a civil penalty as well — all under local and state law. 

If your employer catches you stealing, you would likely be charged with a misdemeanor, such as petty theft or larceny, if the total value of the stolen goods is less than $1000. However, if it exceeds $1000, it’s typically considered to be a felony and you could be charged with grand theft or larceny. In New York State, for example, shoplifting is a Class A misdemeanor which has a finite sentence up to one year. In addition to possible community service or jail time, you would be expected to return the merchandise or pay a fine. This would go on your permanent record and you would have to report it to future employers. 

Moving beyond the laws and policies, examining and deconstructing some of the stress and internal conflict you may feel about these behaviors could also prove useful. When thinking about your personal values and what’s most critical to you, it’s helpful to recognize and affirm that acting on personal values is hard. It’s natural to stray away from alignment between core values, actions, and behaviors. In fact, daring to live a values-based, authentic life can also make you prone to four specific types of stress:  

  • Stress within roles: The values you want fulfilled in a certain life role aren’t being rewarded.   
  • Stress between roles: The time and energy you’re spending on one life role is interfering with the time you can devote to roles where other values are being fulfilled.  
  • Stress of managing too many values: You’re trying to manage too many values that feel critical but are unable to attend to most of them particularly well.  
  • Internal conflict: At times, values can be contradictory and cause ambivalence. 

In this case, it seems like you may be experiencing internal conflict. You may value your job and being a dependable employee, and that may feel at odds with another value related to financial prosperity where you recognize you’re also able to make more money through stolen goods. The conflict between these two competing values can produce a type of stress that is really related to this internal conflict. In managing this type of stress, taking some time to be honest and courageous with yourself in considering your personal values and which is really most valuable to you at this time can help you. This can center your values and authenticity rather than your fear.  

Last, you may also consider what you’re getting out of these experiences. Are you experiencing anything more than the pure financial gain of reselling the items? Some people report a sort of high they experience from stealing and shoplifting that can evolve into a compulsive behavior. With this, stopping may prove to be a challenge if you’re experiencing additional emotions associated with these actions. If you don't think you can stop, there are many support groups and programs available. One program, the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control, specializes in impulse disorders, "process addictions," and out-of-control behaviors, which includes shoplifting. You may also look into other programs in your area that support people who struggle with stealing and shoplifting. If you're not sure where to start, you may ask a health care provider or mental health professional if they have any recommendations. 

Here’s to hoping you find and recognize a path that’s right for you and come to answers to these questions that align most with your personal values and goals! 

Last updated Jun 04, 2021
Originally published Dec 23, 2011

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