You knew it was coming. Ever since the start of these columns, you have been shuffling around and biting your nails, while nodding earnestly with a look of grave distain as we discussed crimes at the more serious end of the ethical spectrum. “Perhaps,” you thought, “I shall be able to get away with this – my minor slip-ups are nought compared to these rascals’ escapades…”
Not so fast, my ethical ostriches – it’s time to uncover your heads and get out of the sandpit: this week, I am tackling expenses.
Expenses are an ethical minefield. Fraudulent and ‘out of policy’ claims are costing UK businesses up to £3.5 billion a year, with one in four of us lying on our expense forms and the average employee falsely claiming £462 per annum. The most popular ways to fiddle the system include: false taxi transport; claims for un-receipted parking; adding mileage to journeys and using expenses claims to cover bar and booze bills. We all know someone who has done it – just ask around, and you will be regaled with stories of colleagues’ “friends” who have asked taxi drivers to add money on to their receipt so they can pocket the difference; or others who have expensed cash for “tips” and dined out with pals on the company card. You will find that a strange, competitive streak emerges: who is getting the most from the system? And whose claim has been the most ridiculous?
The fallout from the MP’s expenses scandal back in 2009 led to a national obsession with who is getting away with what. Whether it be Sir Peter Viggers’ famous duck house (£1,645), Derek Conway’s loo seats (£97), James Arbuthnot’s QVC garlic-peeling set (£43), or Andrew Selous’ 55p mug of Horlicks, it appeared that there was almost nothing that Parliament would not cover at the taxpayer’s expense. While there were paybacks and jail sentences, apologies and prosecutions, the truth was out – and it looked very much as though claim forms were there for the fiddling.
Cuffed to perceptions
Public awareness of expenses shot up in the aftermath of the MPs’ misdeeds, but the effect was surprising – from the scandal’s watershed year of 2009 up to 2010, the number of people admitting to fraudulent expenses claims grew by 11%. Incredibly, after the furore ran its course, not only did employees continue to exaggerate their expenses; the number of people doing so actually increased.
The obsession with this particular strand of ethical perversion lives on. From the weird and wonderful – inflatable sheep, pig organs and pink, furry handcuffs (the cheerful restraints claimed under “stationery”, of all things) – to the mind-bogglingly tight fisted (one penny for a credit card charge), it would seem that pushing fraudulent claims through finance is too much of a thrill to give up, and we’re all at it. But why? And more importantly, how has it become so easy to get one over on our employers?
Research by the Institute of Business Ethics shows that the main motivations are:
- A perception that managers abuse the expenses system
- A belief that the expenses policy is not applied fairly or consistently to all employees
- Expenses allowances are unreasonable or lacking (eg, mileage does not cover the total fuel cost)
- The employer is too slow at paying back expenses
- Employees are unaware of the full detail of the expenses policy
Many are getting away with it because managers do not feel that they are fully briefed on how to reject claims – and some use the process of approving unofficial claims as an unofficial way of rewarding staff. A staggering 77% of employees say they have never had a claim questioned or rejected by their manager.
Lead from the top
So what is the point of all this? The point is that billions of pounds are leaking out of British businesses through fraudulent expenses pay outs – and with such an unstable national economy, we cannot afford to be giving out this money when the cost is controllable.
Fostering a fair and transparent expenses system is a genuine way to not only keep costs down, but quash the sense that exaggerated expenses go some way to placating personal grievances with your employer. A tit-for-tat culture will merely exacerbate the issue – so leading from the top is key to ridding our businesses of this ethical malaise. Transparency and accountability from those in charge is invaluable in the fight, as is re-evaluating and reinforcing the guidelines surrounding expenses policies. The rules need to be set out and they need to be fair and consistent.
You may not like the idea of giving up the unsolicited perks, but it is time to stop burying your head in the sand and admit your part in the damage that’s being done. The reputation of our businesses – and UK plc – hangs in the balance, and it is time you stood up and took responsibility. Wear those managerial feathers with pride!