Q: I am a 34-year-old travel agent. I stayed late one night to help a regular client who wanted to take a trip to Cancun and needed to book the tour right away. He paid $979 in cash, and we gave him the tickets. I did the paperwork and showed it to a co-worker, who soon left, but I was tired and by mistake I left the money on my desk instead of putting it in the safe. The next morning it was gone. A cleaning crew had been in the office overnight and a co-worker had been there early the next morning, but I was blamed for it. The cleaning crew was never questioned. Since I was the last person with the money and responsible for putting it in the safe, I felt that I should make up the loss. I relinquished my entire two-week paycheck to the travel agency's owner.

Soon after, the company fired me. They told me that money doesn't get up and walk away from the desk. I knew this would hurt my references, so instead I've started my own travel agency. But I've been forced to move back home with my parents.

I've collected thousands of dollars during my 14 years as a travel agent, and nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I don't even know my rights on this subject.

A: Stolen money--regardless of who took it--is an ugly issue that eventually crops up in almost every workplace. Many cases are never referred to the police because the companies don't want negative publicity. National Computer Systems Inc., which studies employee theft, estimates that one in three workers commits some kind of theft at work, such as stealing money or supplies or faking an illness.

This case is unusual because company managers often prefer to blame the cleaning crew rather than confront longtime co-workers, said Deborah Keary, manager of the Society for Human Resource Management's information center, who said she believes janitors are often unfairly maligned.

Keary said that most employers would view the travel agent as being "somewhat at fault" for the incident because of her carelessness in leaving the money out on the desk. Nevertheless, assuming the facts are correct, Keary said she thought it was improper, in fact "amazing," that the company would fire the worker after she made up the loss.

Keary said employees who are accused of misbehavior should ask for a full, good-faith investigation into the incident. SHRM offers these guidelines for employers conducting internal investigations: Select an impartial and unbiased investigator; inform everyone of the severity of the allegations and the potential consequences; thoroughly question all the witnesses without steering the conversations; gather all the facts; determine whether anyone has a motivation to lie or a history of animosity toward the person accused of the crime; and make a careful assessment of each worker's credibility. After giving the matter careful consideration, take appropriate action.

Companies must react promptly to stamp out theft or it can proliferate, said John W. Jones, a senior psychologist at National Computer Systems and longtime researcher into workplace theft. He said anonymous surveys have shown that workers who report that their co-workers steal are more likely to steal themselves. "If an organization is perceived as tolerant of theft, it wrecks the security foundation of that company," he said.

Jones takes a hard line. He said "extreme carelessness," such as failure to put the money into the safe, can amount to a firing offense.

In a 1999 survey of employee theft for the restaurant industry, NCS found that workers who anonymously report that they steal tend to be young (ages 16-30), plan to leave their jobs within three months, and are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Workers are less likely to steal if they are older; view their employers as fair, caring, and offering equitable pay and benefits; and expect to remain employed there for more than a year.

Generally speaking, employers have the right to hire and fire workers at will, unless the employees are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement. Theft is almost universally viewed by the courts as a legitimate reason for terminating a worker. But fired workers have successfully brought lawsuits against their former employers for injuring their professional reputations if it can be proven they were unfairly maligned.

Q: I am looking for a new job. Although I know it is not a good idea to be late for a job interview, I have been late twice. The first time I was 22 minutes late, and the second time I was three minutes late. One time the bus I took to the interview hit heavy traffic, and another time there was a disruption in bus connections. Both times, the interviewers asked me whether I had trouble finding the place. I just said no. I didn't get either job. I can understand that being 22 minutes late would be cause for concern, but what about three minutes late?

What should I have said?

A: Apologize, of course, preferably as soon as it becomes apparent that a delay is unavoidable. Call immediately and let the employer know what has happened, said Peter Post, the great-grandson of etiquette doyenne Emily Post and co-author of a new book on workplace manners, "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success."

Arriving late for a job interview is simply "inexcusable" and destroys that all-important first impression, Post said. He said that in today's fast-paced economy, many executives' schedules are so tightly packed that losing a few minutes can squeeze the day's agenda. Post said job seekers should plan to arrive at the interview 10 minutes early. He recommends that applicants visit ahead of time to be aware of logistical problems and so they can scope out the building to see how people who work there are dressed. "Get the lay of the land," he said.

Don't take any chances, Post said. "This could be your future for the next 10 years," he said. Or not.