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Weekend rant: escaping expense hell

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 20, 2013
Expense Hell is a common and painful experience and especially so in large organizations where cumbersome processes encourage bad behaviors. What's the impact and what's the alternative?

The other day Vijay Vijayasankar went on a tear about expense filing. It's a classic. My favorite section:

Expense Police : I need a daily exchange rate breakup for your claims for Germany trip last month. If you can’t respond in 2 hrs , I will deny the claim and you have to raise a new claim later

Moi : sure – let me step out of this stupid negotiation with CIO for a $30M deal right away and go find the exchange rates for you for my $5000 claim.

My response would have been a little different: "I didn't realise you haven't seen expenses in a currency other than the rouble."

Facebook and Twitter are full of messages that go something like: "I'm in expense claim jail/Phew, expenses - done." Whenever I see these, my heart goes out to the person sending the message. We all have our own tales. My most recent involved receiving an expense form which was expense coded for job interviews. And they only send checks - no wire transfer. There's just three problems with that:

  1. US checks are useless to me. We don't have a good system for dealing with them and in any event, processing checks can take many weeks.
  2. I wasn't going for a job interview but at the request of a senior exec where they managed to book and pay for the flight but nothing else.
  3. The form only 'works' for USD while I incur expenses in at least three currencies. How do we deal with that?

Right off the bat I see rigid, processes and policies where there is no room for exceptions even though the global nature of business means we have numerous exceptions. Being a resourceful chap, I offered three alternative approaches:

  1. Use my personal supplier number (sends direct to local bank account but takes 60 days)
  2. Use my business partner's supplier number (sends to his account - we sort out later - settled inside 45 days, often 30 days)
  3. Use another supplier number I have (sends to another business account, my accounts guy sorts it out - settled in 30 days.)

But...and here comes the catch - in order to make THAT work, I need a PO to cover those costs. Given this was a small special project there should be no problem. Right? Try getting a PO!

First there's the statement of work - padded out for the expense cost and rounded up to the nearest $100, then there's the initial approval, then purchasing casts a bead over it, then...and then...and then...

Vijay believes Expense Hell is driven by the 'Trust No-One" principle. And as he alludes, is especially suited for oversight by those who only know how to operate 'The Rules."

This encourages claimants to find workarounds - in short cheat or bend the truth - to make sure they get reimbursed. What, for example, do you do when a taxi driver gives you a blank receipt? Or which exchange rate do you apply when you already know you'll get caned by the credit card company but need to claim in a different currency?

Contrast this state of affairs with the much vaunted notion that we are on the cusp of (finally) releasing value through peer driven collaboration?

If the individual cannot be trusted by the organization as evidenced by crazy expense policies and procedures, then how can they possibly expect success from any attempt at meaningful collaboration?

The tragedy in all this is that most people want to do the right thing most of the time. At least that is my experience from meeting many many thousand people. Does it have to be this way?

Not at all. Going back to my experience - there are organizations that value people. They make sure people are treated with respect and trust. The result? They get the best out of me. I don't claim every penny of expenses. Sometimes I don't bother at all. I'm not an aberration - I am the norm and the sooner that organizations recognize that, the sooner we can get from under systems that encourage bad behaviors and which, to quote Ben Haines, CIO Box are 'inane.'

Image credit: © Jacob WIlliams

Disclosure:  Box is a partner at the time of writing

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