If you have ever worked in an office environment, big or small, I am sure that, from time to time, you may have taken things from work for your own personal use. Some call this stealing. I call it liberating.

My brother and I stocked our first rental home together with glasses and mugs liberated from one of the larger law firms in Australia. Sure, the mugs were all branded with the firm’s name, and the glasses were so cheap they smashed after two or three runs through the dishwasher. This was not an issue – we knew where to get more when we ran short. I justify this liberation of work crockery on the grounds that we were young, poor, and desperate.

Let’s take another example from my shady past. Was I stealing from my work when I made myself an emergency lunch consisting of work supplied tomato sauce and hot water in a mug, which when stirred briskly created a perfectly serviceable tomato soup? This was certainly using work supplies for personal use, and arguably went beyond what is a reasonable use of workplace supplies, given the amount of sauce I used and how often I used it. Should I have been disciplined for this? I should add, tomato sauce soup is a surprisingly delicious treat. Keep it in mind if you are very (very) desperate for something to eat at lunchtime.

In both of these cases, my workplace could have decided that my creative uses of work resources were acts of workplace theft, and I could have faced the very real risk of being suspended from work, or even been outright fired.

So how far can you go in using work supplied equipment for personal use before you are breaking the law?

If your employer wants to fire you for workplace theft, they need to first gather sufficient evidence of the theft – what is described by us lawyers as a ‘basic level of proof.’ Your boss needs to prove that you deliberately and unapologetically acted dishonestly and took work materials without permission or legitimate excuse. And your employer cannot go too far in their investigations, either. They cannot behave like the police or a judge, and do not have powers to arrest you or entrap you (that is, they cannot encourage you to steal something so they have grounds to fire you for theft).

Proving employee theft takes time and effort, too. In all cases, the boss must carry out a proper investigation of an employee’s alleged theft and be 100 percent sure that he or she can prove that the employee is guilty.

Your boss can question you on whether you have been stealing stuff from the office. However, it can’t just be a fishing expedition. Your boss must have a reasonable basis for questioning you about any theft, and you are entitled to refuse to answer any of your boss’ questions, or to request that a representative or union official be part of any questioning to help look after you.

Importantly, your boss cannot dock your pay to cover the cost of what was stolen, or make you pay for any stolen goods, even if you are caught and found guilty of office theft. If your boss wants to recover money for the goods you stole then your company must take formal legal action against you in court.

Finally, and this is a VERY IMPORTANT POINT for all employers – you must, at all times, treat your employees equally. If you have allowed your employees to take stuff from the office in the past, whether by expressly permitting it or by choosing not to put a stop to it, then you cannot come down like a tonne of bricks on one particular employee who steals shit simply to prove a point to the rest of the team.

So, in summary, I stole stuff from work and could very well have been in deep poo. Thank you, former workplace, for choosing not to do anything about it. For all other employees out there, do not think your workplace will be so understanding, particularly in the current work environment when cost reduction is such a huge issue.