How to Save Your Professional Reputation After You’ve Been Caught Stealing From Work

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
April 20, 2024 at 7:22AM UTC
  • If you're caught stealing from work or breaking the law in some other way, the company you stole from could charge you with gross misconduct, can suspend you without pay or can fire you immediately.
  • Don't try to lie; consider writing a formal letter to your boss or the company spelling out what you did, why you know it was wrong, how sorry you are and what amends you plan to make.
  • Before your next job interview, prepare a brief statement ready about why you left the company in case it comes up. 
We know stealing is bad and breaks the law. Stealing money or property from work is an entirely different matter than cadging a few office supplies now and then. It's wrong on a whole different level. 
Not only is your current job now in jeopardy but this can also seriously impact any future employment opportunities as well. And that's if you don't get arrested. Here's what you need to know if you're in a situation where you are tempted to steal money at work.

What happens if you get caught stealing from work?

Let's say you gave into that temptation to pocket a little easy money, or let your anxiety about your growing mound of bills get the better of you. Whatever may cause you to suddenly get sticky fingers the result is you'll steal money from work — and then you'll get caught. Now what? What's going to happen to you? What exactly is the punishment for stealing money from work? Well, that depends.

Did you steal a lot of money, or just a little? If you're a clerk who snagged twenty dollars for groceries because things are just that tight, you can explain to your boss where your head was at, apologize and hope they goes easy on you. But even if you don't get fired or have the incident reported to the police, you'll still have a lot of ground to cover to become a trusted employee again. 
If you steal a lot of money the chances are pretty good you'll take a serious knock. The company you stole from could charge you with gross misconduct and has grounds to fire you immediately. Or you could face suspension, without pay, while the company conducts an investigation, in which case you could still be terminated or face a major demotion or transfer. And of course you may also face criminal charges as well.

What to do if you're caught

Consult your employee manual or other relevant handbooks to see what it says about this situation.  Chances are, it will make it clear that violating the law is an immediately fireable offense. You should be prepared to immediately expect that outcome.
When it comes to stealing money from work or otherwise breaking the law, don't try to lie. You may have been caught on camera or face other definitive evidence of what you did. Being caught trying to lie your way out of this situation will only compound your troubles.
And because you did something wrong you need to apologize for it. Do so in person but also consider writing a formal letter to your boss or the company spelling out what you did, why you know it was wrong, how sorry you are and what amends you plan to make. These could include paying back the money that you stole, taking a lesser role in the company or outright resigning. Offering yourself up for dismissal can illustrate that you understand the severity of what you did and it may encourage a little leniency when a company is deciding what to do with you. If they accept your resignation however, you have to take that hit and walk away. You're in the wrong, after all, so you have to just take your lumps.
A word of caution when dealing with this situation at this point though: your employer may ask you to sign some form of an agreement in which you maybe declare just what you'll pay back and how. Before you sign anything you should consult with a lawyer to see what professional advice they have. They will be able to help you negotiate the terms of the agreement or the language used. It's also good to have that lawyer fully aware of the situation should the company choose to pursue legal action against you instead.

Can you get arrested?

Yes. If your employer decides to press charges against you then you can be charged with theft or larceny. These are serious charges and, among other things, will become a matter of public record. You'll face steep fines, legal fees and even possibly jail time if the crime was large enough to warrant that sentence. This is why admitting your actions and apologizing as soon as you're caught is so important. 
Show that you're willing to work with your employer to repay what you've taken and accept further consequences so that they feel no need to take the situation to the police or to court. As stated, however, make sure to consult your own legal counsel before signing any documents your employer may present. You want to make sure that once this situation is settled there's no way for them to change their minds later and go to the police.

What happens if you get fired for stealing?

If you're fired for stealing money from work you're going to have to deal with the fallout, and possible for quite a while. This includes having to explain why you left your previous position when you interview with any new potential employer. What do you say when they ask about your last position, or if you've ever been fired? It's a tricky situation to know how to handle. Moreover, if you end up having a formal criminal report filed, this offense may appear on any criminal background check that a future employer conducts as part of their hiring process.
If your illegal act does not generate a formal criminal report, obviously what happened in the past shouldn't be the first thing you discuss with potential future employers. Brush up your resume and focus on writing awesome cover letters and securing some interviews. It's during those interviews that the matter of where you worked last and why you left may come up, and you should be prepare yourself for how you will answer the question. 
Have a practiced and, above all, brief statement ready as to why you left the company. You can try talking around the circumstances that led to your termination, but this could come back to bite you if your interviewer later makes inquiries with your former employer. Not all companies will disclose the reason for someone's termination, or even if they were terminated or simply left, but then again some might
Your lawyer may help you to negotiate a non-disclosure agreement as part of the resolution to the situation, but a company may not agree to this. So if you're not sure whether or not this particular cat will come out of the bag then you may just want to take agency and find a way to talk about what happened. 
Again, if things were tough or you were experiencing personal issues that culminated in you making a terrible and one time mistake, say so. The way you frame your answer, without dwelling on the details or in any way trying to justify your actions, will speak volumes to your interviewer and their company. Based on the circumstances and how you present yourself now, having been caught stealing money from work may not preclude you from actually being hired somewhere else. The main thing is to just own your mistake — and then do your best to move on from it.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss. It should in no way substitute for legal advice.
Heather Adams has designed (and re-designed) many business cards. She also writes, makes pictures & creates little notes. As a content creator, she believes that the art of business is storytelling. From brand work to writing the copy that converts, the power of good storytelling is what builds success. Follow her work here.

What's your advice for how to move forward after breaking the law or rules at work? Leave your answer to help others remediate after a mistake.

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