What does it mean to steal? When a person steals is she a thief? What does it mean to be a thief? Are there culturally accepted forms of thievery? Are certain categories of theft exempt? Is there anyone who has never taken anything that was not freely given? When and how do we cross the line? Who’s to say where the line is anyway?
The day after Thanksgiving I received a call that $100 had gone missing from my store while we were closed for the holiday. It likely had dropped from an unknown customer’s pocket, and it was found by our newest employee, Luke, who did not yet know the protocol for this kind of event. Luke called the store first thing Friday morning to let his co-worker, Bob, know he’d left the cash wrapped in blue gauze tape on a backroom shelf, and to ask what he should have done with it. Bob looked for the money, but couldn’t find it anywhere. All he found was the empty ring of blue gauze tape in the trash beside the shelf. That’s when I received the call.
My mind immediately quickened – who did it, when and how, but mostly I thought, “Now what am I going to do?” The only people I knew who would have been in the store over Thanksgiving were the floor maintenance people, and I did not want to believe it could have been them. They had been maintaining our floors for nearly 15 years and I trusted them. I was thankful that the security cameras would give me the information I needed to deal with the situation supported by facts, not suspicions.
After reviewing the video, my heart sank. It was not the floor guys, it was Susan, one of my most skilled and reliable employees – a person with deep friendships among the staff, whom customers love, whom I love. It felt terrible. I felt terrible. The video showed that she’d come in the back entrance and helped herself to some folding chairs we keep for staff meetings. It was Thanksgiving Day and she was having a party. After she took the chairs out to her car, she came back in to turn off the lights when she clearly paused, I imagined noticing the cash left out on a shelf. She then turned the lights off and quickly exited the store.
It would seem natural that the zero tolerance policy I have for drugs and alcohol on the job would also include theft, but it doesn’t. As a small business owner of nearly 30 years, my first inclination was that I needed to act swiftly to protect the business and fire Susan right away. But my mindfulness practice and my ten years’ experience teaching mindfulness told me to wait, to take some time to get more clarity about my intentions and what was truly best for all of us – me, Susan, the staff and the business.
What did I know to be true? What was the right action to take? Despite my painful feelings of incredulity and betrayal, there was something about firing Susan that just didn’t sit right with me.
Was it that I held her is such high esteem that I wanted to give her a pass? Was it that she played a critical role in the store and her immediate replacement would send shockwaves of disruption through the staff? Was it that staff change is costly to the business and I was weighing the impact on the bottom line? How do I define a healthy bottom line anyway? Or was it that I suspected a moment of impulsivity and rotten judgment, not a habitual tendency that had led Susan to take the money? Was my belief in our fundamental decency getting in the way of seeing her clearly? It was probably some of all of that. I found myself weighing how much harm was actually done, and how do I even quantify ‘harm’?
When I met with Susan the following day I made certain my manager joined us for the conversation. Having an extra set of ears and eyes is essential for objectivity, clarity and fairness. I had decided on a plan to give Susan the facts as I knew them and let the conversation unfold from there. My hope was that she would tell me that yes, she was there, she had borrowed the chairs without permission, and had taken the money from the shelf. My plan was also that if she denied it, I would end her employment. Truth be told, I really did not want to fire her. I had a strong feeling that she would benefit much more over the long run by keeping her job and doing the work to re-establish trust. And so would I.
The conversation went just as I’d hoped. Initially Susan said she was only there to borrow the chairs and didn’t see any money, but when I told her what was on the video and that we’d found the blue gauze tape in the trash, she briefly looked away, took a breath, then turned toward me and admitted she’d taken it. She was sincerely apologetic, spoke with embarrassment and remorse and immediately handed me the $100. I was relieved and even a bit proud of her for acting with what felt like genuine humility and authenticity.
Next I asked her how she thought we ought to proceed. If she were in my shoes, what would she do? Susan paused, and then re-iterated how much she loves her job and wants to keep it. She thought it would be good not to allow her to work for a few days. I thought that showed some wisdom on her part especially because I had already taken her off the schedule temporarily. I appreciated that we were thinking alike. In addition, I asked her to return her store key and rearranged the schedule so she would not be alone in the store when she returned to work. I then looked her in the eye and told her I was pleased and relieved she had told me the truth because I believe her to be a very decent human being, who like the rest of us, experienced a moment of complete mindlessness. She smiled in her vulnerability and thanked me for believing in her. I also asked her to prove me right – that taking the risk to continue her employment was a risk worth taking.
A few days later after she’d taken some time off, Susan called me to say that she was at work, and that she understood I didn’t want her to be alone in the store, but one of her duties that day was to cover a break for her co-worker and what should she do. “Susan, I want you to be your best self. That’s it. Be your best self.”
I think this is what mindfulness helps us do. It helps us see clearly enough to make good enough decisions most of the time. When we intentionally connect our ethical practices with our mindfulness practices, what we do in the world becomes a reflection of who we are. And when we act from this place, we are far less likely to cause harm either to ourselves or to anyone else – we’re our best selves. We embody the truth that by caring for ourselves we are caring for others and by caring for others, we care for ourselves – the most important bottom line of all.