Tuesday, April 10, 2018

(Mis)appropriation


I Googled ‘appropriation’, like you do when one of these Grip topics has you stumped. I was glad I did because I learned it’s one of those words – I can’t recall the proper grammatical name – where the opposite means the same thing. Or it can do. Words like flammable/inflammable are interchangeable. Appropriation/misappropriation can be. I know, I know, there’s a subtle difference in that misappropriating something is always dishonest, but it’s close enough.

And there’s a lot of it about. Misappropriation, I mean.

I used to work in the public sector where rigid regulations are in place intended to prevent the inappropriate (another variation of the theme) use of public finds. It was the cardinal sin, the eleventh commandment. Thou shalt not be caught with thy fingers in the cookie jar. As a senior manager towards the end of my public service career, it fell to me to enforce these expectations, and it never failed to amaze me how loosely the rules might be interpreted.

“No, of course I wouldn’t forge someone else’s name on a company cheque! Perish the thought!” But the same person would see no problem in ‘borrowing’ items of equipment on a more or less permanent basis.

“Of course I wouldn’t steal money from the till. But there’s no harm, surely, in being a bit creative with my travel expenses. Everyone does that…”

“No, I wasn’t really ill that day when I phoned in sick. But I’d no annual leave left so I had to do something. It was a family wedding, I couldn’t miss it.”

This is all quite low-level stuff. A sense of perspective always comes in useful. But once or twice (well, maybe a bit more often than that) I encountered really staggering examples. Such as the employee who did forge a colleague’s signature on a cheque to himself. He needed the money to fund a trip abroad and insisted he intended to pay it back so that was all right and why were we making such a fuss? I might have made less fuss – and taken a bit longer over unearthing what was going on – if he’d had the wit to spell the colleague’s name correctly on the forged cheques.

On another occasion I was stunned to learn of a colleague in a different organisation who, having recently been promoted to a plum job, was suddenly in jail for stealing twenty thousand quid from her new employer. That was career-destroying stuff, and I’d have understood it better if she’d got away with telephone number-type amounts. But twenty thousand pounds was a lot less than a year’s salary. The mind boggles.

Or what about the project leader who got it into his head that other colleagues were criticising his team unfairly, so he used his budget to purchase covert surveillance equipment and used it to spy on other members of staff. He even bugged the ladies loo!

So, what gets into people who pull stunts like this? Could it just be greed, plain and simple? Not everyone in a position of trust will live up to it. People make mistakes in a moment of panic, madness or piss-poor judgement. 

Possibly all of the above at different times, though I think it’s more complicated. Even though the chances of getting away with misappropriation of public funds are fairly slim, in every case I’ve been involved in investigating, the person concerned didn’t expect to be caught. Or they thought they could put the money back before it was missed so it was just a loan, really. Or they tried to argue that what they’d done was no big deal, others did much worse.

I’ve been out of that world for some years now and I can’t say I miss it. At least these days when my characters do bizarre and senseless things I can make up a reasonable motive for their apparent madness. Ah, the power of being an author…


5 comments:

  1. I was in sales for 8 years, when starving to death as a teacher wasn't appealing enough to keep me in education. Not being able to make my car payments or afford food was kind of a dis-incentive.

    But once in sales, I was encouraged by everyone around me to appropriate whatever I could get my hands on. We had company cars in those days, and the trunk was always full of products that we'd take to stores to exchange for stuff that came in damaged, or that had expired. We were also to use that to "sweeten" any deal we made with our buyers and managers. Who would know if some of that only made it as far as our own houses? So since everyone else was doing it, I did too...for a while.

    But the thing is, whereas everyone else saw it as a part of their salary, since we all felt underpaid, I always felt guilty about it. So once I got promoted into the office to call on larger clients, I stopped doing any of that small-time stuff. In reality, the higher-ups did it even more than the lower-down employees. And the VPs were worst of all! They'd say they were going golfing with a client to get more business. Who knows if any golfing actually happened? But a whole lot of drinking did. And they were getting paid for it! Just one of the many reasons that I left the corporate world, never to return. I always felt like I was "passing" as one of them, since I didn't agree with their mindset.

    I knew this guy in college who was majoring in Business. He was in a study group of 13. They each only did every 13th assignment, and copied the other 12 from each other. I asked him why he was wasting his money and time, when he was learning very little from copying work. He gave me a pitying look and said, "In America, business people don't work hard, they work smart." Which I guess meant doing as little as possible to get by. Not my style.

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    1. Living and working in Asia, I have to contend with this attitude constantly. Here, some people really don't recognize that the sort of actions you've called out are even dishonest. It's simply accepted as part of life.

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    2. I think that attitude transcends nationalities. It's a human thing. I think it was George Carlin who said that most people work just as hard as they need to, to not get fired, and are paid just enough for them not to quit.

      There are 2 main types of people: 1)those who will do as little as possible, and never feel guilty about it; and 2)those who are a boss's wet dream, because they always work harder than anyone else around them, and their doing so picks up the slack that everyone else drops. As one of the latter, married to one of the latter, we raise 4 kids to be the same as us. So none of us will ever get paid what we deserve, since we get paid the same as the slackers. But as I told them years ago, we can look in the mirror and be proud, knowing we did our best. I guess others just look in the mirror and make faces.

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    3. That's disturbing, Fiona. I would have left too.

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  2. "People make mistakes in a moment of panic, madness or piss-poor judgement." I think this is right. i think a lot of times, people also convince themselves that whatever they're doing isn't actually the bad thing. As you said, people think they're going to go put the funds back or something.

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