Sunday, October 24, 2010

Company Actions Shouldn't Breed Bad Expense Reports

Company expense reports can be the downfall of a good employee. But just because keeping track of receipts and filing reports on time can be cumbersome doesn't excuse cheating the truth.

A reader from Mexico e-mailed to let me know he travels quite a bit for his job, which requires him to work on different projects in various industries in different cities.

"I generate a lot of travel expenses," he writes. He wonders, however, if he is handling his travel expenses "in an ethical way."

He observes that while his employer has a policy about travel expenses, it seems more concerned about the company than it does about the employees.

In his case, the company tells him that he will be reimbursed $8 for every meal and $50 for every hotel room. "But what happens if the cost of a hotel is greater than $50 and the meal doesn't cost $8?" he asks.

That's a great question, given that both of those figures fall well below even the lowest per diem rates published by the U.S. Department of State in various Mexican cities (Colima has the lowest published per diem rate at a combined $115), and certainly below the per diem rates for food and lodging in major cities in the United States and Canada.

"If I pay more than $8 for food and more than $50 for a hotel, my company will not refund the difference," he writes. What's more, even after he files his expense report, the company takes three to four months to reimburse employees for expenses. The company will not reimburse employees, however, unless they get in their receipts and expense reports filed with the company within 15 days of when they finished traveling.

"Workers are creating fake reports and receipts because they want the company to pay what it costs in real situations," my reader writes.

"What's the right thing to do?"

It's wrong for my reader or his co-workers to falsify information on their expense reports. While it's a longstanding joke among many employees that writing expense reports is an exercise in creativity, lying is not the appropriate response. If failing to recognize the drawbacks of lying doesn't do the trick, then the prospect of getting caught fabricating by the company and possibly being dismissed as a result might be a stronger deterrent.

My reader should try to stay within the budget allotted and file an accurate report.

But it's wrong for the company to have such unrealistic expectations about its employees' expenses on the road. And it's even worse that while it expects timely reports to be filed, the company drags its heels when reimbursing employees for money spent doing the company's bidding.

The right thing is for my reader's company to set a more realistic reimbursement figure for its employees' expenses -- and to pay them the money they're due as soon as possible.

Failing to do these things could result in some workers believing that lying is their only option to get what's rightfully theirs. Such behavior is wrong, but the company should do what it can to breed honesty among its workers.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

This question came from someone who apparently has not worked for a company using an expense account previously. You do not bargain with your company as to how much can be spent on items while traveling. The company, I'm sure, has guidelines as to what the allowable expenses would be for each area of expense and the person who asked this question apparently did not have any guidelines prior to going out on the road and now finds his or her expenses exceed the company guidelines. If your expenses consistently exceed the allowable amounts your company sets, you are not on the same page with your company. I don't know if expense accounts in the country of Mexico are handled that much differently than in the U.S., but it appears this man (or woman) should have clarified his or her allowable expenses before going out on the road. Somehow, I feel Jeffrey was possibly not furnished with all the necessary information for this question to make sense.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with Mr. Seng. I worked for a company...a wholly owned subsidiary of a very large, international company. There was no room to cheat on expense reports. There is a great deal of clarity in that type of rigidity.