by R. Daniel Mann
Question: Years ago, when I was working for a consulting firm, my bosses had me inflate hours we charged clients. (I received a set monthly salary). I now feel bad that I stole from my clients. I would want to return that money, but it is too hard to track down the clients and know how much to pay each. I understand that in such cases, one can donate money for public needs, so that those who are owed benefit. How do I do that, considering that many clients probably now live throughout the country and likely the world?
Answer: When one stole from a group of people but does not know how much from whom, if the victims also do not know, beit din cannot force the thief to pay more than he admits, but he does not fulfill his moral obligation until he removes all the doubt (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 365:2). Therefore, if one wants to do the right thing and can track people down, he should do so, even if it means paying more than he owes.
However, there is a different halacha to deal with cases where the range of possibilities is so broad that it is unfeasible to pay everyone who might possibly deserve it. The gemara (Bava Kama 94b) says that shepherds (who grazed in others’ fields) and tax collectors (who took more than they were entitled to) who cannot remember who they owe should use the money due for communal needs. An example is digging publicly accessible water holes. Others (see Pitchei Choshen, Geneiva 4:(50)) give the example of giving sefarim to the local beit midrash. While you have the problem that people may have moved away (and anyway may have never lived in the same community), technology now makes it possible to try to help people throughout the world simultaneously. Do realize, though, that even if you did this successfully (perhaps easier said than done) it is not considered full payment (S’ma 231:34), and if one were able to figure out later who he owes, he would have to pay them (see Pitchei Choshen ibid.).
However, the above does not apply to you. On a certain level you were an accomplice to the deceit of your clients (and you may have lied to them), and this warrants teshuva. However, the decision to deceive your clients was made by your bosses, you did not (we assume) physically take money from them, and the money did not go to you (but likely the firm’s bank account). So even though there is a concept of ein shaliach lid’var aveira – according to which if one’s boss tells him to steal, the worker alone is responsible (Bava Kama 79a), that is in a case where the subordinate actually takes the money from the victim and it is initially in his possession. At this point, it does not seem practical to “open a can of worms” by taking on your former firm and trying to make them research and return whatever money they can (We do not volunteer to attempt this mitzva of rebuke and hashavat aveida). There is even a concept that when someone has stolen a lot and now wants to do teshuva, his victims should not accept the return of what he owes them, for this would discourage him from doing teshuva (Bava Kama 94b).
In regards to you, we are not experts in the perfect steps to take to rectify and receive atonement for each aveira in each circumstance. Certainly, the basics are admitting one’s misstep, regretting it, and not returning to it (Rambam, Teshuva 2:2), and it seems that you have done these. From the time it was decreed on Adam to need to work hard to earn a living, a major part of that involves not allowing one’s job to cause him to sin, whether it be in regard to Shabbat and chagim, relationships with co-workers, or in matters of business ethics (stemming from his bosses’ inclinations or his own). Certain fields lend themselves to bigger challenges in one or more areas. May you and others be zocheh to have not only a sufficiently profitable job but also “a clean and easy” job (see Kiddushin 82a) from the moral perspective. The best ways to increase the likelihood include: tefilla, good training, setting priorities, and being willing to quit if the situation warrants it.