Side of Beef, Bubble Bath: Odd Expense Requests Raise Eyebrows

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 25, 2016
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  • A recent survey revealed some of the oddest employee expense items. Here are some of our favorites.

  • 1: Parking ticket fine

  • 2: Dog sweater

  • 3: Summer camp

  • 4: Jewelry

  • 5: Guitar string

  • 6: New car

  • 7: Bubble bath

  • 8: A side of beef

Company reimbursement for bubble bath? How about expecting your employer to pay for a new car or a side of beef?

Those are some of the odd expense requests that have raised the eyebrows of managers and chief financial officers (CFOs), according to a recent survey. While some of the requests may prompt chuckles, improper expense report requests are a serious problem for many businesses because they drain company funds, said Tim Hird, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources in San Francisco.

Summer camp fees, a sweater for a dog, a parking ticket, jewelry and guitar strings are among the odd expenses employees have submitted for reimbursement.

Organizations with 100-259 employees and those with 500-999 employees saw the most significant increase in such requests—5 percent—over the past three years, according to the survey that was created by Robert Half and conducted by an independent research firm. Findings were based on telephone interviews with more than 2,200 CFOs from companies in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

“Employees are not paying attention to company guidelines and managers are not communicating [guidelines] effectively to staff—particularly to new hires,” Hird said.

Companies with manual accounting systems may not catch inappropriate expenses, he told SHRM Online. And at large companies with thousands of employees, “going through each of these [expense] reports” affects productivity and “ultimately impacts the bottom line,” as accounting staff must reconcile inappropriately expensed items, he added.

“To me, it seems to revolve all around communication. Employees need to understand a company’s expense polices,” Hird said, “and if they’re not sure, get guidance from their manager on what is appropriate” to expense to the company.

An organization also may need to consider investing in software that can catch inappropriate expenses in an accurate and timely manner.

Dinosaur Costumes and Other Legitimate Expenses

Communication is important even when there is a legitimate reason for an unusual business expense—like a $300 dinosaur costume.

Employees at LogoMix, a Boston-based Internet startup, expensed the costume and the accompanying battery pack to LogoMix’s main website FreeLogoServices.com after they used the costume in a video they created to promote a company product.

The video showed someone in the Tyrannosaurus Rex costume using the product, an online business card creator. The idea was to illustrate that the service was so easy to use “even a T-Rex could do it,” said Whitney Heins, who handles public relations for Craig Bloem, founder of FreeLogoServices.com.

“It was not a normal expense item,” Bloem acknowledged. However, “We trust our team to make the right purchase decisions so I was not concerned,” he told SHRM Online in an e-mail, adding that the video “was pretty hilarious.”

Matthew Mercuri, digital marketing manager for Dupray, a company based in Newark, Del., that sells steam cleaners and steam irons in six countries, once submitted a reimbursement request that prompted a visit from the CFO.

Mercuri’s team had hired three college students to live in a stage house—an area that the company uses to shoot its videos—for one day.

“We told them to do some cooking, open a bottle of grape juice, host [friends] in the living room with shoes on, use the bathroom a lot. We really wanted to simulate a party experience and every type of mishap that goes along with it,” Mercuri said. The company’s products would be used in the video to clean the mess they created.

The cost was under $500, but the odd expense request—that Mercuri labeled “making a mess”—caught the CFO’s attention.

“The CFO came into my office, closed the door and asked me if I was defrauding the company,” Mercuri told SHRM Online in an e-mail. “I think the CFO knew it was for a filming expense. He had a slight smirk on his face” during their talk. After all, Mercuri noted, the video-centric company has more than 500 YouTube videos, many of them cleaning demonstrations.

“But, there was 1 percent of his mind that needed reassurance. He just wanted to have some financial clarity and make sure he had complete control over the situation. [The meeting] was by no means tense, but he did instruct me to [use] a better description for these type of unique experiences,” Mercuri said.

“We all got a good laugh out of it at the end of the day.”

Onus on Employees

“The onus is really upon the employee to be a good corporate citizen,” Hird said. Before submitting an expense, employees should ask themselves:

  • Is this within the company policy? Before preparing an expense report, workers should review their organization's guidelines. If there are any questions, check with their manager or human resources representative. Taking a few minutes at the outset can spare the embarrassment of an inappropriate request.
  • Could there be any confusion about this expense? Employees should clear any request that could be interpreted as a personal expense with their manager beforehand. If the boss doesn't know the baseball tickets an employee bought were to entertain a client, for example, that could unnecessarily put the employee in hot water.
  • Would Grandma approve? If an expense item borders on the inappropriate, employees should think about what their family might say.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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