A longtime employee is embezzling from our company

I have confronted her about it, but do I have to fire her?

Published April 20, 2005 7:33PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Last week, I dealt with an issue I still haven't fully assimilated and I'm still wondering if I handled it correctly.

I work in a family business and am involved in the management of it. A co-worker of 10-plus years, in a very trusted position (involving many aspects of handling money) forged a check signing my name, with herself as the beneficiary. Our bank caught the scheme and called me. The scheme was very poorly executed, using a check from an old accounting system and a very bad imitation of my signature.

My first impulse was to not let her get into trouble -- I rejected the check as not ours so as not to draw the funds from our account, but that was the extent of the public part. I also called her (we have different schedules) and told her what I knew, and warned her that the check would come back to her and to be prepared to put enough money in her account to cover it. She said at that time that she needed the check to cover a large purchase that became due. I conveyed to her that this was not acceptable and that henceforth I would be handling the duties associated with our money.

Several years ago our accountant suggested that the reason our cash accounts didn't balance could be due to an embezzlement scheme (she thought it could very well have been carried out by the trusted employee). I did what checking I could; discovering nothing, I chalked it up to a faulty computer system. We were in a very difficult phase at the time, which overshadowed this event, and there is no way to prove anything about this past event now.

As for the recent one, the employee and I also discussed it face to face, and she (very emotionally overwrought) said the real reason she had written the check was to help her son, whose life was being threatened because of his relationship with a convicted drug dealer who turned state's evidence and was a target of retribution from his previous cronies. She swore she had not taken any money in the past, but my gut reaction was that this isn't true. (She's very acquisitive, and many have wondered how she affords all the money she spends.)

I do believe her story to a point, having been privy to the history. But I feel that the more likely scenario is that the son was in immediate danger of being exposed as a partner in these drug deals and the money was to be used in hiding this fact.

OK, now the real question: Should I have kept on this employee? I have not told anyone in the family of this. I've been raised to be compassionate, and redemption is at the core of my beliefs; yet a part of me feels that I've been manipulated. And there's the guilt of not telling my family members. This women is a friend and has a family; I can't imagine the shame to them if all this came to light.

Thank you,


Dear Anonymous,

When a longtime friend and associate turns out to be stealing from us, our ordinary clarity of moral judgment can be clouded by affection, by hope, by belief and by fear. We do not wish to know what we know. So we struggle to find a way around it. We try to find justification for inaction; we distort our moral and spiritual beliefs in order to accommodate our wishes.

You face a wrenching dilemma. But I do not think that the ideals of compassion and redemption that you were raised with argue against firing this person. I think, rather, that you have to fire this person. You can do it with compassion, knowing that redemption is always possible, but you must do it.

I'm going to guess that the ideas of compassion and redemption you were raised with are Christian in origin. While dying on the cross, Christ extended his compassion even to the thief dying beside him and to those who had crucified him. That's a great and profound image. But I don't think it argues for letting somebody steal from you.

I went on the Web and found this, which seems to put it pretty well:

"What did Jesus mean when He said that these people didn't know what they were doing? They knew they were crucifying a Man who was probably innocent of the crimes of which He was accused. They knew they were participating in an act of torture. The Romans knew that their government used crucifixion as a tool of oppression and that they were co-operating in that by driving the nails, by standing guard over the cross. The Jewish leaders knew they were handing one of their own over to the hated Roman authority, authorizing His torment and death. How could Jesus honestly say they didn't know what they were doing? Like the concentration camp guards who later claimed they were 'just following orders,' these men knew they were complicit in an act of terror and violence. How could they be excused? They couldn't be excused, in the sense that their crimes didn't really happen or had no meaning. But, they could be forgiven -- for forgiveness means recognizing the enormity of evil and having enough love to rebuild the broken connections that sin has severed."

I think that says it pretty well. They couldn't be excused, and neither can the thief in your office. But they could be forgiven.

As to redemption, I take it the redemption you refer to is a holy redemption, something beyond our earthly power. Whatever you do in this matter, you will not be interfering with anyone's opportunity for that kind of redemption.

So you can fire her and still strive to be Christ-like in your dealings with others. You can try to accept, as Christ might have accepted, the flaws in human nature, but that does not mean that you let the strong prey upon the weak, the cunning on the unsuspecting, the prevaricators upon the honest. Accepting people's flaws does not mean you condone them; it does not mean you have to stand by as innocent people are robbed. What it means is that you recognize the ultimate source of this behavior as humanity's separation from God. Having recognized that, you leave the ultimate judgment of humanity to God.

Suppose that I have supposed wrong, however, and that your ideas of redemption and compassion are not Christian in nature, and that this little sermon has been delivered by one nonbeliever to another -- an absurd exercise if there ever was one! Is there a secular justification for firing her while still acting compassionately? Of course there is! In a secular world, we would ask for fairness. The criminal deserves our compassion, but no more so than the victim. So how is our compassion to be measured?

To whom do you owe the greatest compassion? Would you not have 100 times the compassion for 100 people that you had for one? So if you caused harm to one person but saved 100 from harm, would your compassion not be well spent? In the case of your embezzler, by concentrating your compassion on her alone, you are exposing many others to potential ruin. How would you justify it if, out of compassion, you kept her thefts a secret, and your family business was wiped out? Would your compassion have served you and your loved ones well? No, because it was disproportionately spent.

So whether you look at it from a religious or a secular viewpoint, your duty is clear. I hope this will help you find the strength to do what the situation calls for.

It would indeed be the height of perversity to continue to employ someone who is stealing money from you.

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