My first business trip was to train on the products I would repair as a newly hired field service technician at a global copier manufacturer. After arriving, I promptly drove my company car to the hotel, which was already paid for, as was anything I charged to the hotel room — without exception. As a young man who had yet to learn about budgeting, I lived those two weeks like a rock star who had just hit the big time.
If I wasn't ordering the most expensive meal on the hotel's restaurant menu, I was ordering more food from room service than anyone could ever eat in one night. Either way, my eyes were clearly bigger than my stomach. To say the least, I set an example for why unchecked spending on business trips is not a good practice for anyone involved.
During my more than 30-year-career, I've seen many changes in expense reporting rules and procedures — and in my own perception of how I should approach spending while on the company dime. Here are a few nuggets of wisdom drawn from my experiences:
Age Matters, But So Does Fairness
As my embarrassing confession shows, young employees often need more spending guidance and limits than senior employees, whether they're on a business trip or a day-long job. But that can be a tricky situation for finance pros to navigate. HR departments frown on having two sets of rules, and older employees might resent a perceived double standard. That leaves two choices: Make responsible spending a part of your company culture, or change the rules for everyone, which might cause resentment among more tenured employees.
Knowing what I was like at age 22, I suggest the later. But I now fall into the longer tenured category, so I recognize that it's important for each manager to explain why the rules have changed. It's easier to follow new rules when you know why they have suddenly changed.
Encourage Bottom-Line Thinking
There are several ways finance leaders can make employees understand how their spending affects both profitability — and their salaries. I'm in favor of giving bonuses based on either divisional or company-wide profitability. If that isn't possible, finance leaders should at least remind employees that if the company spends more than it collects, raises and bonuses go out the window. It doesn't hurt to remind employees about basic Business Finance 101, from the moment they're hired until they retire.
Always Set Limits
When considering whether there's a threshold where there should not be at least some spending guidelines, I think back to when my wife worked for a high-risk insurance company. The owner was rich and extremely generous with the company's profits. He owned several houses near Pebble Beach, Calif., and would allow his VPs to use them whenever they wanted. That is, until they started throwing wild parties and trashing the houses. He finally had to put his foot down and set limits. Remember: When “free money” is involved, human nature tends toward excess.
Take Advantage of Technology
When you're out in the field for business, it's easy to overspend without realizing it. There have been many times when, five days into a seven-day trip, I’d add up my expenses and discover that I would have to eat my remaining meals off the dollar menu. But mobile expense management tools, which can show the running expense total at a glance, have helped solve that problem. These tools even allow users to set up a warning if they approach the daily spending limit.
Prepaid debit cards are another option. If employees want to go over budget, they have to use their own money. I've known several techs who prefer this option because they can eat on the cheap and use the balance for other expenses.
Setting fair limits, encouraging responsible and profit-minded spending, and taking advantage of easy-to-use technology tools will help get corporate spending under control (and rein in employees who might be tempted to act like out-of-control rock stars).
Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year field service veteran at the Xerox Corporation. He is also an author, humorist, blogger and freelance writer. Read more of his work at www.donaldbstephens.com.