Situation Ethics & Stealing

It's not OK to steal workplace resources because you feel underpaid.
It's not OK to steal workplace resources because you feel underpaid. (Image: Images)

Situation ethics, or situational ethics, proposes that the line between ethical and unethical behavior isn’t necessarily unwavering. The religiously rooted concept states that behaviors should be considered within the context of their surroundings. This might help you make decisions in your personal life, but it should probably be avoided in the workplace. Chances are your boss won’t condone you stealing from him because you felt it compensated for your low pay.

Joseph Fletcher

Situational ethics was advocated by Joseph Fletcher, a religious leader who lived from 1905 to 1991. An Episcopal priest and advocate of euthanasia and Planned Parenthood, Fletcher’s publication “Situation Ethics” has become the foundational reference for successive writings on the subject. Fletcher draws on the Bible’s New Testament to argue that behaviors commonly considered unethical can be justified in some circumstances. For example, if an armed robber enters your home, it might be acceptable to respond violently to protect your family. Or you may be justified telling a loved one she looks pretty even when she’s in bed with the flu because the lie might make her feel better.


Situation ethics can sometimes be applied to the workplace, although employees should be cautious about this. In many cases their situational-ethics approach may be directly at odds with their employers’ perspective. An employee might feel comfortable telling callers his employer is out of the office, when in fact his employer is present but in a bad mood. The employee might justify the lie by assuming his employer wouldn’t have handled the call to the customer’s satisfaction because of the boss' sour mood.


Stealing in the workplace can take may forms. This can be the outright theft of physical objects, such as pens, paper clips, stationery or glue sticks taken home for personal use. Employees might also steal resources, such as using office computer access to hunt for other jobs or create personal client lists from the company's master file. Workplace stealing can also include the deliberate misuse of time: compiling a recipe book, chatting with friends or booking airline travel during time allotted for work.

Stealing Ethics

Situational ethics are applied to workplace stealing when workers (or employers) justify theft as an attempt to correct unfair practices. For example, a worker who feels unfairly compensated might steal office supplies or slack off during the workday to counterbalance her low pay. An employee who has observed his employer stealing from clients or the government might decide to steal from his boss, with the justification that he's punishing the dishonest employer. Employers observing unproductive workers might “adjust” the time clock to shave off increments of time worked, believing this to be fair. The problem with this approach is that some of these practices are considered illegal. If apprehended, culprits might lose their jobs or be demoted.

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