More on the family business.
The time an employee stole money. A tale of being human.
Our family business was not huge in terms of staff. At the time of the theft, I think there were about a dozen employees, plus my parents. My dad was really good at avoiding redundancy in staff so everyone was really important and became expert at their roll.
I was working quality control when it all went down. The ground swell started as a flurry of activity on the part of the bookkeeper. Lynn had been with my parents forever. Dedicated. Loyal. At first, of course, I had no clue what was going on, just that Lynn seemed really upset and she was talking with my dad behind closed doors way more than normal. It all felt very “hush-hush” which in a small business environment can draw lots of attention. All of the front office staff wondered what was going on. I was wondering because my regular habit of hanging in my dad’s office to listen to him on the phone in the late afternoon was interrupted by the closed-door sessions.
To this day, I don’t know for sure how many of the dozen employees knew in the end what had happened. I knew because it was discussed at the dinner table. It was upsetting, but it was layered in ways that taught me something very valuable.
Here’s how it went down. Lynn couldn’t get the main checking account to reconcile one month. We were a million dollar business and the main checking account saw quite a bit of activity. She poured over it late evenings for days. She was flustered and obviously upset. “Something is wrong”, she reported to my dad. “I can’t find it.” She backed up to a previous month, started again, still out of balance. She pulled accounts receivable files, checked manually, matched check copies…and then…she was getting close. Back to my dad’s office on about day 3 of this. A longer closed door session.
The next morning only a few of us were in. I am and have always been a morning person (don’t hate me for it) so I generally arrived around 7:30a. My dad was there by 8:30a…Lynn was there because she was still trying to solve the money mystery. Then Tyrone came in. He was not a morning person, so his arrival at 8:30a was a surprise. He came in, did not stop at his desk, went straight to my dad’s office and closed the door. They were in there for a long time.
When Tyrone came out, it was clear he had been crying. My dad looked exhausted.
Tyrone had stolen money by taking and depositing incoming checks. He “tricked” the accounting system with false entry and deposited the checks to his own account via an ATM. It was shocking that a person could even do that — I mean not morally but technically. Of course, it was a flawed plan because the account wouldn’t reconcile.
Tyrone walked in that morning to tell my parents what he had done. He couldn’t carry on with the burden. After the meeting, Tyrone did not walk out the door to his car. Nor did any police officers show up to hand-cuff him. He went to his desk, booted up his computer, and started on the stack of order entry that was waiting for him. I learned that night what it means to be a small business owner. It means you have human beings working for you.
Maybe Tyrone knew he was going to get caught. Or maybe he just couldn’t stand to have stolen. He went to my dad’s office that morning, shut the door, and with tears streaming told my dad that he had stolen money. Tyrone’s partner was HIV positive, and he was sick. Insurance was not an option. Medicine was new and expensive. They couldn’t afford it. “I took the money” he told my dad “because I don’t know what to do”. He was sorry. He was so so sorry and so so distraught. My parents were distraught, too. The money needed to be returned. But Tyrone needed help.
I don’t know how exactly they resolved the situation in terms of money. I do know that Tyrone kept his job. He loved my parents for being compassionate. I appreciated that my parents didn’t publicize the situation. Our little family business just embraced Tyrone and let him know that whatever was going on, we loved him. He was part of the family.
Tyrone and his partner are both gone now. But I remember him as that funny, lively, larger-than-life order entry clerk who loved his partner fiercely and owned his mistakes and still showed up.
My parents showed me that employees are human beings. They are not perfect and sometimes people just need help. Things are not always black and white. It doesn’t make you push-over to forgive. It makes you a leader to understand.
And to Lynn, where ever you are today, Good Job! I can now empathize. As a bookkeeper, I have worked through three situations with clients where money was stolen by an employee. Two of those occasions I was the one to discover the discrepancy. In all of the situations, I was able to be of counsel and help resolve the situations both as bookkeeper and human being.
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Here are a couple of previous articles about growing up in the family business:
I am Rachel Tawil Kenyon. Click on my profile for articles about living a balanced existence at work and at home.