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Ask Salt&Light: Should I forgive a thief in the department?

Dr Philip Satterthwaite // October 8, 2019, 6:00 am

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In a situation like this you need to consider all angles, and how to be fair to all those affected by your decision, writes Dr Philip Satterthwaite. Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash.

Dear Salt&Light,

There was a recent theft case in my department. As the supervisor, I have to make the decision whether to fire the perpetrator. I am reluctant to do so – he has apologised for his actions and promised not to do it again – knowing we are called to forgive, but I also don’t want to set a precedent where people take advantage of being given a second chance.

Jeffrey C., 50, store manager

Yes, Christians are called to forgive and, if the matter were just between you and the perpetrator the issue would be straightforward: You would be obliged to forgive, just as you yourself have been forgiven by God.

But who has been wronged here? Certainly you have, as the supervisor of a department whose performance will be affected by the theft.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean the wrongdoer is freed from all responsibility for the wrong they have committed.

But what about the other members of the department and the company as a whole? How have they been affected? Do you have the right to offer forgiveness on their behalf? You need to think carefully about the possible effects of “extending grace” in such a situation.

You don’t indicate the scale of the theft. I assume that it is not trivial but, on the other hand, it has not seriously threatened the viability of the company or department (if it had I suspect you would have fired the person already).

I assume also that you have talked the matter over with the perpetrator and know at least something about his or her background, family situation and reasons – however inadequate – for committing the theft.

You have a number of options, depending on the exact nature of the situation, and also on your company’s HR policy:

  1. You can tell the person that you have personally forgiven them for the theft and the harm it has done you, but fire them on the grounds that theft is destructive for the company’s profitability and ethos. You are not required to forgive on others’ behalf.
  2. You can forgive them personally and retain them on staff but require them to make restitution, in full or in part. Forgiveness should not mean that one does not have to make amends for wrongdoing.
  3. If the department as a whole knows about the theft – which you seem to imply – you need to avoid setting a bad precedent. So retain the perpetrator, require them to make restitution, and make it known in the department that this is what you have done. This makes clear that “second chance” does not mean profiting from crime.
  4. If it is generally known who the perpetrator is – and not just that there has been a theft – there is likely to be ill-will towards the perpetrator in the department. If you choose option two or three, you may need to gather the other members of the department, explain your decision and ask them to forgive the perpetrator and continue to work with them.

These are not the only options, and all options are open to potential objections!

The main biblical principle here is that while forgiveness can be a precious and healing thing, and while Christians are required to be forgiving people, forgiveness does not mean that the wrongdoer is freed from all responsibility for the wrong they have committed – nor should it do so.

In a situation like this you need to consider all angles, and how to be fair to all those affected by your decision.

Ask Salt&Light: Should I let an underperforming employee go?

About the author

Dr Philip Satterthwaite

Dr Philip Satterthwaite is the emeritus principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST). Dr Satterthwaite has been a lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since 1998. Before that he was a research fellow in Hebrew & Aramaic at Tyndale House, Cambridge. His main research areas are the Old Testament Historical books and the Septuagint.