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Having a nameless and unknown thief break into your house or office and steal would be a frightening experience. I’ve heard people who have gone through it describe feeling violated. It takes time to regain a sense of safety after your space has been invaded.
It is almost worse to learn that someone has been abusing a position of trust by systematic theft. In addition to having your security and comfort violated, there is a sense of betrayal. That’s what my wife and I felt when we learned that the babysitter we liked and trusted had been cold-bloodedly stealing from us for months. Her recent sentencing has once again brought those feelings to the forefront.
As I’ve talked with friends and colleagues about this experience, several of them shared similar stories. All of our discussions had a common thread. We all had been left pondering two questions. The first was, "How can I keep this from happening again?" The second was, "How do you know when you can trust someone?"
The first question was in some ways the easier one. I had to ask myself what I might do differently in the future. How might I protect myself, yet not become paranoid and unreasonably mistrustful?
Some aspects of preventing this particular type of theft in the future were embarrassingly simple. First of all, I needed to stop keeping cash too easily accessible. In addition, it was my failure to review Jill’s timesheets regularly that had allowed her to get by with overstating her hours. As the person who signs the checks, verifying a statement or invoice is ultimately my responsibility, one I need to do more carefully.
Several friends also said that such an experience had led them to review their systems for handling payments, invoices, and cash in their businesses. All too often, there was no systematic method designed to guard against dishonesty. A way of handling money had been developed, sometimes quite haphazardly, based on the undoubted integrity of one or more employees.
What needs to be in place instead is a system that is independent of the character of individual employees. It isn’t a matter of trusting or not trusting specific people, but of having a reliable and neutral method of tracking what comes in and what goes out. This actually serves to protect employees as well as the employer.
The problem of how much and whom to trust is more difficult. My wife and I have been severely shaken by this betrayal, and so have other long-time and trusted employees. I also am questioning my ability to judge someone’s character. It was amazing to watch Jill’s behavior once we knew she had been stealing. She was as friendly and apparently open as she had ever been. It was as if she were able to completely dissociate her act of stealing from her relationship with us. That is perhaps the scariest issue about her theft.
I now am assessing all my relationships. Who else might be stealing from me? Who else is in my life that I should not trust? I am wondering whether I have been too naïve when it comes to trusting employees. My style of management requires a high level of responsibility and trust from my employees. I don’t want to give up that style and that attitude. I don’t want to believe that most people cannot be trusted.
My conclusion is that I should not give up trusting, but should offer my trust more consciously and responsibly. Perhaps I need to follow the old Muslim proverb: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”