I’m stealing from my employer and fear getting caught

Tell Me About It: My bosses gave me no sympathy when my alcoholic husband died, leaving me in a lot of debt

PROBLEM: I am a middle-aged woman. Three years ago my husband passed away suddenly leaving me in a lot of debt. On reflection now, I can see that he was an alcoholic and had a significant gambling problem. When he died I went to the bank and had to restructure several loans which has left me under enormous financial strain. I also have one son who is due to start university this year and I will be responsible for paying his fees and accommodation costs. He struggled with his Leaving Cert so I think it is important that he focuses on his studies and I have advised him not to take a part-time job.

I have a good career and have worked very hard with the same organisation for 25 years. After my husband died I was really disappointed with the way my bosses treated me. Over the years I have seen the sympathy that other people have received. The business was going through a major transition at the time and whilst I took bereavement leave I was also expected to work long hours to meet painful deadlines. In my role, I have access to cash and I started dipping into the funds to take small amounts. I didn’t feel too bad about it initially, as I know how much money I bring in to the firm. I have always found ways to account for anything I took and nobody ever noticed.

However, over the past three years this has become a habit and the amounts that I have taken have increased significantly. I have never used this money to pay bills; I have only ever used it to buy luxuries such as perfume and jewellery. The organisation has recently appointed a new financial controller who I believe has a great reputation for finding anomalies in the accounts. I have started to become anxious that I will get caught, and in a way it might be a relief.

However, I don’t know how I would cope with the consequences of losing my job and facing criminal charges.

ADVICE: It is worth looking at your principles and how these have been compromised over a long period of time. You say you now realise your husband was an alcoholic and he took no responsibility for leaving the family in serious debt. Did you also participate in this illusion: that he could carry on with no consequences?

It seems you have taken up some of his mantle by justifying your theft by feeling you deserved more sympathy and money from your organisation than was forthcoming. Both of these things might be true but there are ways of challenging and dealing with these that are legislated for in policies such as dignity and respect codes or in talking to HR about your concerns. The problem is that habits are easily formed and the ease with which you covered over your deceit made the theft seem normal.

You want your son to take responsibility for his studies and I wonder if he is also picking up the family tradition of looking for the easy way out. You do not want him to take this route as you know that most success is dependent on some self-discipline and getting ourselves to do what we do not like.

It was extremely hard to be left with excessive debt by your husband and this together with the loss probably left you with a resentment at the world that you took out on your workplace. It is worth considering using your organisation’s employee assistance programme, which provides free confidential counselling, to untangle what has happened and to come to a self-awareness that might allow for a future that is less reactive and more assertive.

It is extremely likely your theft will be discovered and therefore more in your favour if you find a way to own up and take charge of the outcome. Offer your regret and apology, have a plan for repayment and for ongoing counselling so that your organisation can see that you are genuine in your efforts to make amends. This is an extremely difficult thing to do and yet it could also be the beginning of being in charge of your life. Your willingness to face reality and take the consequences of your actions could model adult life for your son that is different to what he has had to date.

You will need lots of support when you are going through this next phase (in the worst-case scenario, you may lose your job) and so it is important to take people into your confidence and tell them what has happened. We all hate disappointing others but the risk is worth it as you will find the people you can lean on for the rest of your life. You are at a crossroads and, as always, there is opportunity in this as well as the risk of failure.

Have the courage to take on the challenge and become the kind of person both you and your son can admire and trust.