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How workplace theft became a national tradition

Under communism, experts say, petty pilfering from firms was commonplace. Workers had little concept that they were committing a crime, and the massive state subsidies for companies meant they had no idea that their company was suffering as a result.
Although during the previous regime people were punished if caught stealing or 'taking things away', the phenomenon was generally accepted, sociologists say, and permeated all levels of business, management included.
"People didn't worry about the economic situation of their companies because they were subsidised by the state when they fell into trouble," said Iveta Radičová, a sociologist at Comenius University.

Under communism, experts say, petty pilfering from firms was commonplace. Workers had little concept that they were committing a crime, and the massive state subsidies for companies meant they had no idea that their company was suffering as a result.

Although during the previous regime people were punished if caught stealing or 'taking things away', the phenomenon was generally accepted, sociologists say, and permeated all levels of business, management included.

"People didn't worry about the economic situation of their companies because they were subsidised by the state when they fell into trouble," said Iveta Radičová, a sociologist at Comenius University.

"They always collected their salaries, even when their company wasn't doing well. That's why they didn't know how it [the company] was doing, and didn't have any loyalty towards the company or motivation to make sure it did well," Radičová said.

Another reason behind the employee theft, explained partner with the HR firm Lugera & Makler Gerard Koolen, was that people believed that all property was collectively owned, and therefore they didn't have any inhibitions when it came to stealing at work, because no one obviously suffered. "At that time, workers believed that everybody owned everything. For them, it was not wrong to take stuff from companies since one of the basic philosophies of communism was that of collective ownership," he said.

"It was a custom. It wasn't a real crime because everybody was doing it, bosses included," Koolen said, adding that he knew of cases when company bosses built their entire houses from materials taken from their work.

Many Slovaks who have seen the change from command economics to free-market capitalism say that company theft was more of a habit under communism, and that stealing was both widely accepted and often not even considered a breach of law.

"Employees would see their bosses stealing and took it as an example," said Katarína, a 36 year-old lawyer from Bratislava. "Fifteen years ago, when I used to work in the poultry industry, I once went for a business trip to a cooperative farm with the general director. When we came to the farm, I was surprised to see his chauffeur's car parked in the back yard. But I learnt why afterwards.

"I saw the farm's staff loading the car boot with all kinds of meat that the director then took home. It was a common occurrence. People did it because they said: 'why can he do it and not I," she added.

The police, though, have said that company crime is changing. While bosses indulge in tunnelling and stripping companies of their assets and funds, common workers have moved up from purloining poultry to using trucks to carry off large shipments of metals (see story above). "Cases of theft of heavy goods weren't common during the former regime," said Rastislav Husár, head of Košice regional police's department for property crime.

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