One of the more memorable movies of my childhood was Sounder. Sounder was a dog who belonged to a poverty-stricken southern family. A particularly heart-wrenching scene in that movie is when the father is taken to prison for stealing food to feed his family. A recent incident at MOM’s reminded me of that scene…
There is an employee who has worked with us full-time for nearly a decade. After doing a recent inventory, we discovered 2 particular products missing by the dozens. They happened to be the 2 products we frequently saw this employee consuming. We checked the receipt records and neither product had been bought by any employee for months. And then we reviewed the security cameras and confirmed theft.
My first reactions were typical, fueled by feelings of betrayal, anger, and sadness. But my next wave of reactions came from a place of empathy. Everyone knows that stealing is wrong, but humans make mistakes. For justice to prevail, context should strongly be considered when determining appropriate consequences.
To put things into context, I’ll begin with myself. For starters, I’m pretty grateful that like all humans, I’m at the top of the food chain! Beyond that, I am a white male, born in the US. My parents never divorced. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who cooked 3 square meals a day, kept our house immaculately clean and organized, and made sure that we all had routines and traditions. My father had stable work and a decent salary as a college professor. I used my mom’s 2-car garage to start MOM’s (my father died when I was 17). My mom also once lent me $3,000 when I ran short of cash during the start-up phase.
I am not a woman, a minority, or homosexual. I have never faced poverty. I continue to reap the benefits of all of my life’s privileges. In fact, by historical standards (going back no further than a short century), many of us in the U.S. are living like royalty.
Some might say that I deserve what I’ve got because I’ve worked hard, taken risks, and have good judgement. But, how did I obtain a good work ethic? Or my optimism? Or my risk-assesment abilities and refusal to accept conventional thinking?
Science has shown us that these traits are largely dictated by our DNA- and we know that we are somewhat influenced by our external environment- the hand we’ve been dealt, so to speak. My work ethic was definitely instilled by my parents. I had a 365-days-per-year paper route from an early age, never received more than a $5 allowance, had to pay for all of my stuff (starting with a $35 transistor radio I bought when I was 11), and had weekly chores (of which my dad tracked with a charted point “system”).
But all of this was out of my control. I don’t recall actively pursuing, selecting, or collecting any of these traits. I feel as if they were always just there.
And then there is the employee who stole. What was her childhood like? What is her life like now? What stresses does she feel every day that I’ve never felt in my life? What infinitely complex formula of emotional experiences, DNA, and societal influences has made her what she is today- influencing every behavior from whether to get a college education to taking something that isn’t yours?
We terminated her. Part of me thinks that this employee needs forgiveness and a 2nd chance- but, a lot of her honest and wonderful co-workers are undoubtedly expecting accountability from top to bottom at MOM’s. And we must wonder in these situations: is this just the tip of the iceberg? If this employee is stealing a little bit every day, what else is she doing (or willing to do) that we are unaware of?
Situations such as these are complex. I generally find “zero tolerance” policies and positions to be- well, intolerant. They seem rigid and too simplistically black and white. The “Just Say No To Drugs” campaign comes to mind as an example of this, as it largely addressed drug use as the main problem, rather than a symptom of larger, complex problems.
It makes me sad (and sometimes mad) when people steal from MOM’s, whether employees or shoplifters, yet my challenge is to remember that there is much I don’t know. I need to strive to be objective and fair- and remember to live by the wise words: “that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.”