Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How *not* to hire and manage Cambodian staff

It's been over a month since I've updated the blog, which I do apologise for. I have been so very busy, traveling to Bangkok and to Phnom Penh (twice) in the last month. Cambodia is a big country, and it takes me six hours by bus to go to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, where I live and where we have a Bloom shop. It's like going from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which also take 6 hours. I come from Singapore, where everything and everywhere in the country is accessible within an hour's bus journey, and despite the constant traveling in Cambodia, I am still not used to it.

(For the Bangkok trip, I took a taxi and then bus, which deserves an entry in itself.)

For now, just a quick update to tell readers Bloom had its worst crisis in the 20 months we have been in existence. I try not to write about the problems Bloom faces, but at the same time I don't want to give the impression a). it is easy doing business in Cambodia b). it is easy setting up and running a social enterprise. I write this in the hopes people will learn from my experience.

I'll write more when I feel less tired. All I'll say now is our Cambodian manager, Sipha, whom I have referred to in this blog as "my right hand woman" and honest etc, turned out not to be the person I thought she was. It was very disappointing and hurtful to learn she had been systematically stealing from Bloom, by inflating receipts and by stealing materials we purchase for Bloom (such theft is very common in Cambodia). In addition, she had been undermining the business by sewing our designs for other shops in Phnom Penh, including one in Beong Keng Kang 1. The BKK1 shop owner is a lovely Khmer woman and we had a long talk about Sipha's behaviour and the sympathetic owner even let me take photos of the bags as evidence that Sipha had been selling Bloom bags on the side.

I sacked Sipha on the spot when I went to Phnom Penh about a month ago. On the advice of a Cambodian friend I also placed an advertisement in the main Khmer newspaper that announced that Un Sipha is no longer employed by Bloom, so we will not be responsible for her actions henceforth. She called up someone I know and said she wanted to sue me for the ad etc. (there is no basis for the suit as I did not describe what she had done in the ad, although I am fully aware I am describing what she has done here, on this Internet posting. The reason I dare to do this is because I have evidence, the receipts and the testimonies of the shopkeeper and the market supplier). I was even told to be careful of acid attacks. One British guy I met for advice told me how he had a hand grenade thrown into the company's compound after he had sacked a staff member who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. In short, I was advised, let things go. "Khmers can be very funny when it comes to losing face," was what the British man told me.

It has been very distressing time. Incredibly distressing. Close friends will tell you how one day I just broke down and sobbed and sobbed. I just could not stop. I was so very hurt and betrayed. Sipha had *nothing* when I met her--a mother of four who had left her drunk and abusive husband and had been out of a job for months, after Hagar asked her to leave. I remember how she had only one pair of shoes. By the time I had asked her to go, she had a dozen pairs of shoes (she was constantly buying shoes) and was staying in a three story flat from which she was profiting by renting the upper two levels for more than what she paid in rent. She even managed to buy USD3000 worth of land near Sihanoukville.

Which brings me to another point- I was very angry when I found out after this incident that I had been given someone via Hagar's job placement scheme, someone who had herself been sacked by Hagar. Incredibly, Hagar's job placement manager, disagreed with me that Hagar's job placement processes needs improving when I pointed out to her Hagar should not be finding jobs for people they themselves had sacked. She insists she cannot guarantee the women's behaviour. I do not ask for guarantees but surely it is fair to expect the NGO from whom you hire staff to tell you if they had sacked someone they then recommend you hire. The manager thinks I am trying to push all the blame onto Hagar for recommending I hire Sipha, when I should accept responsibility for not being more stringent with her. I told her yes, I do know it is my fault for trusting her with so much (never, ever trust your Cambodian staff with money is the comment I have gotten since this happened). As a result I have put new processes in place, for stock controls and have also hired a part time accountant based in Phnom Penh to check all the receipts and stock levels. I am also seriously contemplating moving back to Phnom Penh. But Hagar should not do this anymore--they cannot, should not, *must not* pass on a bad staff member to another organisation.

I will say it clearly: I do not think Hagar is a bad organisation. On the contrary, they have helped many, many women, women like Neang and Sophea and Kemhut, by training them and giving them the skills that enable them to get jobs like the ones at Bloom. Hagar also gives rice and bicycles to women who need these items. For that I thank them.

What I am saying is that no one and no organisation is perfect, and Hagar's job placement processes are far from perfect. I would like Hagar and other NGOs that provide skills training to not, ever, find jobs for someone they themselves had sacked. I know the reason why I was passed Sipha was because of pity, because people wanted to help this poor person, to give her another chance, but it is unfair and wrong for someone else to shoulder the risk of giving this person a second chance. At the very least, there must be disclosure to the new employer.

So, a very distressing period but a very, very useful one. I've learnt a lot from this incident and truly believe that Bloom can only benefit from this experience. We are already showing signs of improvement--we are working more closely as a team and former Bloom staff have actually come back (for free! who says all Khmers are grasping?) to help me during this time of crisis. One, Sina, has even quit his job at the Raffles le Royal to come back to work at Bloom. I feel so very lucky to have good friends like Sophal, my tuk tuk driver who found me a new workshop and Heng, who is always on hand for advice on how things are done in Cambodia. And Kerri and Virginie and Jimmy, of course, for being there when otherwise I would have been alone in Phnom Penh.


Kiwi Khmer - Khmer Kiwi said...

Diana don't change your attitude. Khmers are not all thieves, they lack understanding a knowledge. The most frustrating thing for me working in Cambodia is the constant repetition to get staff to perform even simple tasks.

Diana Saw said...

Hi kiwi khmer - khmer kiwi,

Thanks for that. I know in my heart Cambodians are not all bad. I have really, really good staff members like Sophea and Kemhut and Neang and Sina who I believe genuinely care about me and Bloom. The problem with betrayal is it makes you doubt your judgement. It makes me think: for all I know I am wrong about the above people too.

But I will not allow myself to become cynical and bitter. I just have to be more patient and keep learning. I'm really confident and optimistic about Bloom, and that one day we will make it. :)


Blog Widget by LinkWithin