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Next time you’re at a restaurant and you see a couple of servers huddled near the cash register, they may not be discussing the day’s specials.

They may be sharing tips on how to steal from their employer.

Theft, like other employee behaviors both good and bad, turns out to be contagious. That’s the conclusion of a new study by three researchers from Washington University and one from Oxford University, who studied seven years of data from 34 chains owning 1,049 restaurants.

The chains’ information technology provider uses an algorithm to detect patterns of misconduct. The researchers focused on three common schemes: comping a meal in the system after the customer pays, voiding a bill after collecting the money, and what’s known as the wagon-wheel scam. In the latter, two people order the same item and the server transfers it from one bill to another, pocketing the cash from the first order.

Such schemes are costly. Industry experts say employee theft represents 4% of restaurant food costs, totaling billions of dollars nationwide.

Theft goes up, the researchers find, when a waiter with a history of misconduct shares a shift with a newbie. That new server is more likely to also become a thief.

Lamar Pierce

Lamar Pierce, professor of organization and strategy at Washington University's Olin School of Business.

Lamar Pierce, a professor of organization and strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School, worked on the study with Olin colleagues Tat Chan, a marketing professor, and Yijun Chen, a graduate student. They were joined by Daniel Snow, an associate professor at Oxford.

Pierce said the results aren’t surprising, given what researchers know about other types of workplace behavior.

“Is it OK to show up 10 minutes late?” he said. “There are a lot of these types of norms that people adopt from watching people around them.”

Workers may learn stealing schemes from experienced thieves, or they may simply observe that such behavior seems to be part of a workplace’s culture.

“A lot of this stuff is pretty petty,” Pierce noted. “In general, they are underpaid … and a lot of them have jerks for managers. It’s not surprising to me that a large number of them actually steal.”

The copycat thieves are strategic. Although servers are more likely to steal after working with a known thief, they’re more honest during a shift when that person steals a lot. Apparently they worry that bosses might spot the brazen behavior and become more vigilant.

The study included data on 83,153 servers, 56% of whom committed identifiable theft at least once. The researchers said their numbers are conservative because the algorithm was designed to avoid false positives.

Theft costs the average restaurant less than $10 a day, so managers might be tempted to dismiss the problem, but the cost of a bad-apple employee can be far higher.

Through computer simulations using their data, the researchers found that doubling one server’s theft count would increase a restaurant’s losses by 76%.

“You have an effect on everybody you work with, and that multiplies it,” Pierce explained. “If I’m having an effect on you, it also will reflect onto everybody you work with. It’s like aiming a flashlight at a mirror box.”

What can managers do? They can subscribe to a theft-detection service, and pay attention. Other research shows that waiters steal less when they know they’re monitored.

Just as importantly, Pierce advised, fire thieves when you catch them. Don’t rationalize it because he or she is your best server who maybe had a bad night. One bad apple, after all, can soon spoil the whole barrel.

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