by Etan Ilfeld, Managing Director of Watkins Media
I like to think that I’m a pretty good judge of character and that most people are honest and trustworthy. However, I’m fallible just like everyone else and in 2019, I got duped and was taken advantage of.
In the summer of 2019, my independent publishing house, Watkins Media, was in need of a new financial controller. After an extensive search and interview process, I hired Philip Newman with glowing recommendations from previous employers and on the back of a good interview. Unfortunately, in the brief three and a half months that he was at Watkins Media – before being dismissed for an unrelated matter in September 2019 – he defrauded Watkins Media of almost £14,000.
Trust is a prerequisite for most relationships and, for the most part, my trusting outlook has served me well in life. But when you get burned, you can lose your sense of trust and become overly cautious. I’m trying to learn to have more faith in people again, rather than letting this experience dampen my spirits.
When the fraud was discovered in October 2019, I was shocked and angry. I am proud to run a publishing company that produces books which strive to have a positive impact on the world, and would not expect anyone to take advantage of such an enterprise. I felt victimized and began to doubt my hiring instincts. The good news is that Phil Newman only worked for the company for a short period of time, and so his window of opportunity to embezzle funds was limited. Otherwise, the damage could have been much greater.
It took a while for the police to follow up on the matter, and I had to learn to be as patient as possible. They had planned to execute a search warrant and interview Phil in early 2020, but this was delayed and then the pandemic arrived, further delaying the case for about a year. The Metropolitan police detective I was liaising with was kind enough to reach out and update me regularly and finally, in March 2021, a search warrant was executed. By May 2021, Phil Newman had confessed and his family helped him pay back the stolen funds. On the 7th of May 2021, this matter was finally brought to a close with an Adult Caution for the offense of Fraud by Abuse of Position to Philip Newman.
It’s been a very tricky time. The position of financial controller comes with a high level of trust and finding the right person to handle finances for a fast-paced and growing business with multiple departments was a big job. To then find that my trust had been abused was an extremely challenging moment for me. As MD of Watkins Media, I am hands-on and like to be involved, but practically speaking cannot be there for every decision, so finding out one of my core team members had chosen to take advantage of the business in this way was deeply distressing.
The fact that I am writing this article 18 months after the events reflects how long and fraught the process was, with the final resolution occurring only a month ago. I feel it’s my duty to speak about this now, as so many small business owners are in a position of needing to find a reliable pair of hands to work on their finances.
What did I learn from this experience? I still think it’s important to trust people while listening to your intuition. When you are hiring, you go out looking for the best people to further the business you are passionate about and support your other staff. You have to do the due diligence, check out the applicant’s credentials and references, and ultimately trust your gut. But the hard truth is that even when everything looks good, you can find out later that appearances were deceiving.
I learned a lot from reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, which teaches us not to take things personally. What happened was ultimately down to Philip Newman’s decisions, not mine. I’ve now reached the point where I feel I’ve processed it all and no longer take it personally, and as a result, I feel much better and freer.
I recommend hiring slowly and firing swiftly. That way you have a strong filter for finding new employees, but don’t drag out a working relationship that is damaging your business. Rather than letting this experience scar me, I hope to grow from it and will keep looking positively into the future.
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Etan Ilfeld is the Managing Director of Watkins Media.