Q: My 20-something daughter worked for several years at a local retail chain. She was fired after knowingly and repeatedly letting a customer take advantage of her at the cash register. It is difficult for my daughter to come to grips with. She had never met the customer before, and I believe her when she says she never pocketed any money.
She has applied for several retail jobs since, but the applications always ask if she has ever been fired and why. She answers honestly and that seems to end it. What can my daughter do to overcome this mistake so it does not follow her the rest of her life?
A: Maybe “Les Misérables” has made me a sucker for redemption stories, but I sympathize with your daughter. Many of us have at some point been angry, desperate, burned out, gullible or intimidated enough to commit unjustifiable acts. Acknowledging and atoning for those mistakes is how we become better humans. If you’re genuinely making those efforts, you shouldn’t bear the brand of those mistakes forever.
Whether deliberately or passively, your daughter was complicit in theft. To loosen her double bind—tell the truth and be rejected vs. lie and live in fear of discovery—she has to face that ugly fact and ask herself, “What was I thinking?” What was her mental and emotional state? What kind of non-monetary kickback was she getting from it? Being honest with herself is the best way to avoid repeating her screw-up.
Then she needs to decide what she has to say for herself, including what she did wrong, what she should have done and why she can now be trusted to do better. Example: “I failed to intervene after I realized a customer was running a scam. I should have told my manager right away. I realize protecting my employer against loss is a serious responsibility, and I won’t hesitate to speak up in the future.” She should be prepared to elaborate if asked.
After that, she should tell her former employer: “I understand why you fired me. I’m sorry for what I did, and I will not make that mistake again. I want to continue working in retail, so when employers call for references, I’d be grateful if you would consider not volunteering that you fired me. But in any case, I need to know what you intend to tell them.” If she was otherwise a good employee, her former employer may be willing to take that into account and agree.
To avoid a semantic scramble for truthful-ish answers about why she left her last job (“I didn’t have a future there”), she may want to try networking with personal connections who can vouch for her character when introducing her to prospective employers.
And it might be best to look in a new field. A non-retail employer may be willing to overlook her past mistakes in handling cash if she is otherwise honest, competent and reliable—and shows she’s determined to live up to those standards.
Thanks to employment lawyer James P. Reidy of New Hampshire firm Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green.