My Fill-in-the-blank Privilege

Straight FlushOne 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.”


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20 Responses to My Fill-in-the-blank Privilege

  1. Bill Samuel says:

    Thank you for this sensitive and perceptive post.

  2. Catherine Turner says:

    I believe you did the right thing, Scott, including feeling bad about it. Your parents obviously taught you that there are no punishments, only consequences; we all need to know that. The father in the Prodigal Son story forgave, but as I recall, he gave the Prodigal a party, not the deed to the farm; that was for the son who stayed and took responsibility.

  3. a lot of people created this “privilege” it wasn’t just pulled from thin air. fire away! there’s no forgiveness in letting people do wrong with impunity- that’s not an act of love, it’s the proliferation of suffering.

  4. Ima Caring says:

    I notice you never tried to find out what her background/upbringing was like. Maybe you should have. You may have learned what it is like for the “other half”. Everyone grows up thinking the way the were brought up is the way that everyone is brought up, and that the way they were brought up is the “norm”. I know someone personally who worked for you in the past and that person thought you were a pompous ass. Certainly that would cause resentment among your staff, after all you lived a privileged life, your parents were smart and knew the pathway to success. Those who are less privileged may not have had that knowledge bestowed on them. So you worked hard, there plenty of people who work very hard and never are able get past minimum wage. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up with parents who taught me a good work ethic and I worked hard, tried to better myself by going to college, worked two jobs and/or worked full time and went to school part time, and had a 3.5 GPA. I was also a single parent for 18 years. I never got my degree after 7 1/2 years of going to school part time as I had to take so many non-credit classes in order to be able to take credit classes. All this while seeing others who didn’t have as much schooling as me (no college at all) going on to get better jobs than me because of who they knew and various other “not fair” reasons. My parents taught us girls in the family that college was for men and that us girls would get married and have some man take care of us or we would go to work as a secretary for the government (which payed pretty much a non-living wage if you were a single parent). I was not a thief, as if I had been, I knew there would be severe consequences from my parents. I can however understand why someone might resort to that. I am not condoning theft, but having to “go without” my entire adult life has endowed me with an understanding for others who have also had “to do without”. Let us not forget the fact that all of us are constantly bombarded with advertisements for things only the rich can afford and that we will never be able to have. Just some food for thought.

  5. David La Voy says:

    Your comments raise the right questions and set the right tone, but you indicate no outreach to the person involved to ask those questions. You seem to acknowledge the significance of individual experience on human behavior; but, unless you omitted essential information, you did not personalize your treatment of this employee. Instead, you placed greater emphasis on the expectations of her co-workers and adopted the zero-tolerance policy you decry. It follows, of course, that your employees are now even more firmly in expectation of zero tolerance.

    I can’t get away from the notion that something important was happening in the life of an employee who had worked for you full time for nearly ten years; that you might have missed an opportunity to help; and that the loss of a job might have been personally destructive well beyond any reasonable punishment such as reimbursement or reduction in rank.

    • Scott says:

      We did some outreach- or, more accurately put, some investigation. I omitted a few pieces of information in my blog post (performance while at MOM’s, track record prior to MOM’s employment, reaction to being caught, etc.) because they weren’t needed to further make the point (the complexity of people/life and forgiveness).

      • bme says:

        I too have a small business and it can be very difficult to decide what to do about an employee if they have worked a long time and are found to be less than honest. I know you need to have a certain level of expectation for the employees. you left out if you talked to the employee, what they had to say about why they did it, if they wanted to make amends, etc. Didn’t sound harsh that you had to take some action, sounded pretty harsh if you didn’t try to work with the individual – maybe it could help them in some larger way if they had a chance to change, who knows? Would have been good to hear a little more details. But I am wondering, wouldn’t the other employees know who you are talking about? Maybe that’s not so good if it will be shaming the misbehaving employee in front of all the others. Just saying…

  6. Em in PA says:

    I really appreciate and admire your compassion, Scott. While we cannot know everything that is happening in a person’s life, nor what “baggage” they are carrying, it’s important to note that there are many folks who are disadvantaged who do not steal, shoplift, etc. You and Mom’s gave her a step up, a wonderful place to work, and a steady paycheck (though it might not have provided everything she needed). Knowing her history might explain her behavior, but doesn’t excuse it.

    I hope you do not feel guilt about the advantages you’ve been given. Recognizing them, being grateful for them and doing good with them is a wonderful thing. Guilt over circumstances over which one has no control, serves no one.

    All best.

  7. marsha scialdo says:

    An antidote to your story about the employee who stole. A couple of years ago I unkowingly dropped my cell phone in the parking lot of your Alexandria store. When I got home I realized it was lost and called MOM’s. One of your “bagger” employees had found it in the parking lot and turned it in to your manager! When I returned to pick it up I personally thanked her and gave her a monetary reward. So you also have lots of good going on as well. I am sure you believe there is more good than bad going on in your world and the world at large due in large part to families that try to raise their children with a sense of morals and ethics.

    • Scott says:

      I believe the people who work here at MOM’s could very well be the best 1% nationally of companies mid-sized to large. Working here is amazing. After being in business now for 27+ years, I’ve pretty much just stepped out of the way and let the 700 or so employees power this train.

  8. Lee Heefner says:

    I love your store (revel at the success of the one in my ‘hood), am very glad you tried to be somewhat compassionate to this employee… but did you offer her a chance to reimburse (eventually repay what she took)? Maybe that could have been another option. But I also think you have to do what is fair in consideration of all your wonderful employees who don’t steal.


  9. Susan says:

    There was a segment on This American Life that sheds some light on what kind of people steal. You can find it here (near the bottom, titled “Act Three. I Worked at the Kennedy Center and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.”)

  10. Clark says:

    Hello Scott,

    I am glad to hear your parents instilled you with those many important and desirable virtues. However, it is unfortunate that they did not instill any sense of privacy or discretion through the course of your childhood. I would think that someone who had held such tenure in your company and was recently terminated would be easily identifiable to your staff given the details you have posted for the world to see. There are some things that you just shouldn’t share and I’d say the details of any employees termination should go on that list.

  11. Chelsea says:

    It’s rough. Professionalism requires a hard line on this issue. Even “time theft” and improper use of discount can cost you your job in retail. I’m glad that it has inspired a moment of introspection for you (as it has for me in the past). My co-workers lunch went missing from the common fridge one day and we had to remember that when food is stolen it means someone was probably hungry.

  12. June says:

    Top of the food chain? I’m curious to know what that means. Thank you.

  13. June says:

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Mahatma Ghandi was vegetarian.

  14. Maureen says:

    Hi Scott
    My name is Maureen. I wanted to let you know , I was on your Waldorf store
    A couple of weeks ago. I had the pleasure of being helped by Chad.
    Tall and slender, not sure if his last name is Marshall.
    He was such a delight in helping me with the purchase of your Smudge Sage product .
    At first I was embarrassed to ask about it. Well don’t you know, Chad answered
    all my questions and began to give me more info on his use of this. I bought two and was so happy to have met him.
    He is a GREAT asset to your store .
    Wanted to tell you this ..
    Thank you so much..

  15. Bailey says:

    Hi Scott,

    A little late to the discuss, but a very interesting post abut a challenging situation. I do think you did the right thing.

    We had a similar event recently at our company. It sounds like it was not as extreme as your recent case, but it was similar in that it was a long standing employee who was doing dishonest things at work – on more than 1 occasion over a long period of time. For us, probably like you, it all came down to a character trait of “knowingly and repeatedly performing dishonest and unethical” actions which breach everyone’s trust. Had the person come to us to ask for assistance, we would have explored options to help (as I know you would have). Although we all cared for him as a person, after much deliberation and investigation we believed that termination was the best for all parties involved (even the terminated employee, as he will likely never, ever do that again I suspect which will help his long-term opportunities).

    In short, its a very difficult decision, but I’d agree that MOMs did the right thing.

    In these circumstances, often people focus on the terminated employee only. That is important, but not everything. Great companies and managers equally focus on the overall health, productivity and happiness of the other 500+ employees. If a company tolerates a culture of not following its values (and trust is a key one) then they will be less successful, be forced to set-up more rules and regulations, be less trustworthy to its remaining team….and ultimately manifest into a crappy place to work. These small, one-off decisions seem hard at the time, but they are very important as they accumulate over time. Again, MOMs did the right thing.

    Lastly, as a former employee, I’d like to add that it is extremely rare that companies can build a great culture and community whilst growing beyond 1 store. Whilst the scope of your post can’t cover all the great things that MOMs does (like higher than average pay, benefits, training, promoting from within, etc.), I know that MOM’s is values-led and has done that very well, does not discriminate, and is amongst the best I’ve seen (and I’ve worked for many companies). Nothing is perfect and never will be, but there are probably over 500 employees of all diverse backgrounds at all levels of the company (from senior management team to front line) who would agree that on balance MOMs is an exceptionally brilliant place to work!

    Thanks for sharing, Scott.


  16. Miranda.Raggio says:

    HI Scott,
    I, like you, grew up in Beltsville, MD, and am constantly inspired by your story of MOM’s creation and how you have remained so true to your original mission. I am a loyal customer, as are my other family members.
    My passion is dog rescue, as I see the lessons, laughter, and love that animals in general bring to the family unit, especially dogs. I volunteer for the nonprofit group Lab Rescue of LRCP, where we rescue, vet, foster, and find forever homes for over 1000 labs in the area each and every year. The dedication to the cause and these dogs is not unlike the dedication and passion that you exhibit for environmental concerns, so I felt that I wanted to reach out to you with my recent disappointment over MOM’s denial of gift card donation request.
    Over the past 5 years MOM’s College Park store has generously and graciously, without reservation or hesitation, donated a 75 of 100 dollar gift card to our LR Online Auction, one of our largest fundraising events of the year. Your MOM’s gift cards sell for DOUBLE sometimes, helping to raise much needed funds for these abandoned dogs. This year,however, when I contacted Mom’s through the new online corporate office link, which I guess is now required, I was denied. I returned an email explaining that MOM’s had been a previous supporter for 5 years, and got another denial from the same individual, although I sent the email to the CP store general manager, Dameon. I am so incredibly disappointed..and I have to say, it leaves a fearful knot in the pit of my stomach that MOM’s is starting to forget the community efforts and roots. Can you help me understand why MOM’s no longer will support this worthy group? Even a gift card of a smaller denomination would be both appreciated and helpful.
    Miranda Raggio, Beltsville Resident, Mom’s customer, and Lab Rescue Volunteer

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