The last few months have left me morally drained and, have challenged my determination as an entrepreneur, as manager and owner of an IT company in Liberia.
In May, salaries were upgraded at our company. It was a good moment and, I felt proud that our company was able to honour the time the long timers had served at our company.
Oldest NATC staff is caught red handed at a client's office, engaged in fraud
Hardly a month later, our senior staff was implicated in fraud with one of our clients. The shock of this betrayal didn't strike me at first but over time, I felt all the stages of professional loss: shock, anger, disappointment, rage and, deep cynical rage. Jonathan was working with me since 2010. He was hired immediately after the crew I had inherited from NLTC had walked out on me, in a staged coup. They stayed away from the office and, I learned from the Ministry of Labour that if staff stays away from work for 10 days without any excuse they may be fired without any compensation.
The office assistant gave me his CV, it was in a pile of applications and, after inviting him for an interview, I hired him at US $ 300. At this time, our office was still located in a small apartment (in fact, that's where I also lived) and, over time the business grew. A few months later, Haresh also joined the company and we three worked hard to grow the business. We moved the office to a bigger space on Randall Street, bagged more contracts, and worked out to stay in the business.
Jonathan was always hardworking, punctual, and quiet. His communication skills were not very good but we worked with him to help him improve. See English classes. One particular client really didn't seem to like him for his inability to explain his work. We gave him strong feedback and worked closely. A couple of years later in 2013 or 2014, this very client accused Jonathan of offering his company business directly, sidelining NATC. The client didn't have proof and, during the heated meeting with the CEO of the mining company, I was not convinced that Jonathan had indeed dared to betray NATC. Haresh was somehow convinced but I stuck to my guns. The client asked us not to send Jonathan to their offices. When Jonathan was caught red handed in 2016, I remembered this episode and started to doubt myself and whether I had acted foolishly by protecting my staff.
Over the years, Jonathan worked loyally, quite and bore my strong management style, discipline and, stuck with us through the ups and downs of business, ebola and so on. Not that any of my staff had to go without a salary or anything like that but still, I appreciated his loyalty because so many other technicians had come and gone through the doors of NATC, including international ones.
Jonathan had clocked 6 years with us, and I felt we had gotten to know each other quite well and, could see a future together. I always appreciated that he was willing to work on weekends, on holidays and, so on. A few times, Jonathan had got into scrapes because he was borrowed money from someone but we bailed him out. I didn't make much of it. I didn't really doubt his sincerity.
On 20 June, NATC received a call from a client and was called for a meeting. During the meeting, it was revealed that the client's IT officer and Jonathan had seemingly colluded and submitted a fraudulent invoice for payment for a $150.00 router. The client's IT officer had already been suspended of something a couple of weeks before.
The invoice’s format and template was very similar to NATC’s invoice/receipt format. The letterhead indicated a known company run by a Nigerian fellow Joshua, known to NATC. The number on the letterhead was Joshua’s and he was asked to come in for the same meeting. The number on the stamp was Jonathan’s own number. In the presence of Joshua, Haresh and the client's team, the number on the stamp was called and someone answered (most likely Jonathan himself) saying they were Joshua.
The evidence pointed towards Jonathan himself. The client asked NATC not to send Jonathan to their offices again.
Jonathan didn't come back to the office for a few days. He must have got a wind of things. When he didn't show up for a second day, we sent an e-mail to our clients saying Jonathan was under investigation. Jonathan showed up a few days later and, had very little to say. I was so upset seeing him and asked him why he did it when I had defended him all those years ago. He was quiet. I called the numbers on the fraudulent invoice and his phone rang in his hand. He mumbled that there was another side to the story and he did'n't have much to say because we had sent an e-mail to clients to say he was under investigation. Since that day I haven't seen him.
I felt quite crushed and defeated after this episode. For all the ups and downs of doing business in Liberia - poor infrastructure, sky-high rotten corruption, no proper schooling that produces qualified IT engineers or technicians, a tiny economy - I believed that the team I had managed to put together at NATC was an accomplishment that I could boast of. Lebanese and Indian business owners never trust Liberians as managers in senior positions; they would rather bring their own nationals to work in responsible jobs. Not that NATC didn't try to hire non-Liberian staff but we didn't have much luck.
In fact, by the end of 2014, I was proud that we had an all-Liberian team and broken stereotypes. See my note here: Reflection: 2014 the year they wanted to make Liberia famous for ebola.
I was quite angry and fed up after Jonathan's betrayal. I would be morally outraged in one instance and, then ask Haresh whether we should forgive him. I also missed his presence because we had been working together since 2010. I also lost control and, spoke loudly in the office in the office at everyone that instead of getting any thank you from our staff over the recent salary upgrade, we don't get a thank you and actually have staff committing fraud.
I also really felt personally betrayed because I had come to have blind trust in Jonathan. I respected him as my peer, a long-standing colleague who had borne as much difficulty as I had. Whenever I returned from a trip abroad, I would present him and his son a gift. I also invited him to social functions we hosted at our house.
His salary had been upgraded to almost US $ 1000 in May 2016. Instead of receiving a thank you and renewing commitment to NATC to work sincerely, we found out he had sold his character for a mere US $ 150.00. It really felt like slap on the face.
Since then, we had an Indian businessman walk into our office, looking for Jonathan who had apparently taken a couple of hundred bucks from him to do a private IT job! Haresh also tells me that some server and MikroTik router configurations have been done incorrectly by Jonathan.
Daniel, the junior technician, by default, has become our senior technician and, has stepped up to the challenge. He has managed all the jobs on site and worked closely with Haresh. V-SAT issues out of Monrovia were contracted out. Despite the deep sense of betrayal I felt, practically NATC's work has been unaffected.
NATC still looking for bookkeeper
Besides the Jonathan issue, we had a few other staff issues. The bookkeeper that was hired on high recommendation decided one fine morning he didn't want to do it anymore. He was not an accountant by profession but was brought over with a very flattering sifarish and, as they say in Liberia, made a big mouth about his work ethics and, commitment to his job. Even in his blog post, he said he was excited to be part of a company that had standards and professionalism. The big mouth he made at the interview about his honesty stuck in my mind as over blowing one's own trumpet. He worked diligently and neatly but, he shouted at me once after I asked him for something. He almost yelled at me saying he had been busy running after the Tax Clearance certificate and hadn't even had lunch. I was shocked at this burst of anger. This fellow resigned by an SMS in which he praised Haresh, in fact waxed lyrical about him.
It was very unprofessional behaviour and, I was incensed. Haresh gets things done in the office, goes on site, prepares bids, and, doesn't mind if staff misses days. I am the one who trains, sets the procedures, drafts terms of reference and contracts, set the tone for the team, give feedback, solicit client feedback, etc, etc. I work very closely with our team, teaching them our rules and standards, provide them feedback and help them to see their role in the company. For all this, I was quite amused that this fellow was, on one hand, resigning but indirectly insulting me by saying he had learned so much from Haresh. His tactics were poor.
A trainee we hired after he contacted us on Facebook also started acting up when he demanded he wanted a holiday on Eid ul Fitr even though it was not a public holiday. In fact, we had an ongoing networking job. I told him he could offer his Eid prayers in the morning and then join his colleagues on site. He didn't do that and, just took the day off. Needless to say, I was angry and lectured him. A few days later he resigned in a huff and a puff. This fellow had also made big mouth at his interview about how IT was his passion and, he didn't even need the money.
Rita Gailor has graciously, effortlessly filled the gap by maintaining our cashbook, ensuring all filing is done, and even preparing weekly summary reports. She has done it before to fill a gap and, has now resumed the job until we find a bookkeeper. In fact, I contacted Mercy Corps, again to see if I could find an accountant through their Apprenticeship programme, the same route with which Rita joined NATC.
These setbacks by staff are as bad as dry cash flow, clients cancelling contracts, and infrastructure headaches. They are demoralising. Without a good team and loyalty of one's staff, running a business is even more stressful.
We have always told our staff, old and those being interviewed, that we are looking for managers. We are a company that wants its local team to handle all responsibility and, be part of something great in an environment which is as challenging as Liberia. We have the chance to truly conquer mountains and set the trail blazing.
We have never tried to be cheap with renumeration for staff. We work hard and expect our staff to work even harder. We work in and around all the challenges, norms and culture of Liberia. We have procedures and standards. We are fair and principled. We have a great office that our staff work out of.
As shocking as it was to learn that our senior staff committed fraud, we have left that episode behind us and forge ahead. And, instead of focusing on his betrayal, I am happy I have 2 staff who are still with me: Rita and Daniel. They are young, hard working, well spoken and, hopefully, will be at NATC for years to come. I hope they will become the face of NATC in years to come as leaders and managers.