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…