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.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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