Sunday, November 29, 2015

Is employee right to pocket 'free' items her company earns?

A reader, P.S., from the Midwest works for a small business. Part of her job involves keeping the supply closet stocked. She typically creates a list of items needed and then makes a trip to the closest office supply store to purchase the goods needed. P.S. uses her own credit card and then gets reimbursed by the company for the purchases.

Occasionally, the office supply store will be running a special sale on items where customers can buy one and get one free or buy several of the same items and get one free.

As a result of these regular special offers, P.S. wonders if it is OK for her to buy several items for the company and then, because they're "free," keep the bonus items for herself. She also wonders if it is OK that she regularly racks up points on her credit cards toward airline ticket purchases, even though the purchases were made for the small business that reimburses her for her expenses.

For years, there's been a parallel discussion about who owns the airline travel miles or points that employees might earn when they fly on business-related travel. Technically, those miles or points should belong to whoever is purchasing the tickets. Since the business pays for the ticket, it has a right to claim ownership of the miles. But many, if not most, businesses let their employees keep the miles they accumulate on business travel. Sometimes it's justified as a way to offset the time the employee has to spend away from home. Other times, it simply perceived as a perquisite of the job. I would guess that often it is simply seen as too much of a hassle to keep track of all of the miles and then transfer them to the company. But in every case, businesses should be clear with their employees on their policies. If a business' policy is for the company to keep the miles or points, then the employee should follow that policy.

In P.S.'s case, the small business for which she works has no set policy on how to handle points that might be earned from special purchases. The right thing is for the company to make its policy clear or to simply ask P.S. to make those purchases with a company credit card rather than with her own. If the company doesn't care about her accumulating points for these reimbursed purchases, it should make that clear to P.S. and other employees.

The bonus item question strikes me as a different kettle of fish, although P.S. has never found herself buying kettles or fish for her company.

It would never be right for P.S. to purchase an item solely so she could get a free item as a result of the purchase. But P.S. should not consider those "free" items hers to keep.

By getting a couple of items for free from purchasing a certain amount, the net price of each item effectively is lowered for P.S.'s company. The company should reap these cost-savings rewards since they resulted from purchases made with company money.

The right thing is for P.S. to stock her business with all of the items she purchases on such shopping trips, even those that she might be tempted to see as a little something extra for herself. 

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Anonymous said...

She is using her own account for purchase company supplies probably because the company finds it better that way, any points should be hers. If they want points, they should set a card up and do these purchases with their card.

As for discounts like 2 for 1, these are the companies. It is a far stretch to think the buyer gets these. After all, she is being paid for her time and has some obligation to get the best deal she can for the company.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Rick Kenney said...

Both the author and this poster are right. Having the employee use her own credit card reflects poor, lazy, cheap management. I once traveled for a major organization (which depended largely on taxpayers' money) that allowed an office clerk to use her own credit card for arranging our travel. When she booked me for a two-week, three-stop business trip, first, she was upset that I would be driving (and claiming mileage expenses for direct reimbursement) rather than flying on her card. Then, she had me staying at a chain motel with what she described as a lavish breakfast buffet every morning. Turned out to be pastries and coffee. And she was racking up points for herself. She was eventually fired for this practice and others similar to it, but there was no best-practice model in place to begin with and then lack of oversight all along.

Anonymous said...

In this kind of a situation, it would appear at first glance that this "transaction" would classify as "OK". However, when this person works "her magic" at this store, she is "unintentionally" treading on thin ice ethically, since a member could feel she is "stretching" her connection with the company. In this case, as in all "borderline" ethics situations, it behooves her to forgo taking advantage of what is probably not an unethical act. In all such situations, bend over backwards not to behave unethically.

Charlie Seng

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