What you should know if you’re fiddling your expenses

Last week, when a surveyor asked British people what they thought of their prime minister, Boris Johnson, they rushed to use words such as “false”, “unreliable” and “dishonest”.

It makes sense. Johnson is the first serving UK prime minister to be punished for breaking the law – for attending a surprise Downing Street birthday party during a COVID lockdown. He is also fighting allegations that he deliberately misled Parliament about such events.

Yet when it comes to honesty at work, he is not completely alone.

When other surveyors asked British workers if they have ever been dishonest at work, a non-trivial number say they have, at least when it comes to their expenses.

As it happens, Johnson’s partygate plight has arrived as allegations of a new round of spending made headlines. A soldier, a chief executive officer and a bunch of bankers are involved in cases that I have only seen in the last few weeks. Of course there are many more that I missed.

Obviously, none of this even remotely excuses Johnson, who, among other things, broke the rules made by his government.

Yet every time I see a new report on questionable expense claims, I remember a piece of corporate wisdom an executive gave me years ago. If a company wants to fire someone, the easiest way is to go through their expenses, as the chances of finding something technically worthless are very high.

This gels with surveys conducted over the years for web spend, a UK Headquarters software company.

A 2016 survey found 20 percent of British workers admitted to exaggerating their spending claims, while 29 percent considered it normal to be dishonest at work.

The top reasons Fiddlers cited for the fraud were: for a low salary, their employer could afford it, and everyone else was doing it.

Another survey by the same company found that expense fraud claims an average of £451 per year; Men cheated more than women and about a third didn’t feel guilty because they felt they deserved it.

The British were not unique. Researchers found that workers in North America, Australia and New Zealand were also at risk of fraud.

Amidst the deceit that unfolded, one Australian admitted to claiming a condom and another admitted to biting his nails. An American claimed tickets to a Chicago Cubs baseball game, taking a brother instead of a client, while a compatriot went to Nashville for a concert and claimed it as a business trip. But one type of expense fraud outweighs all others: profit.

The exaggerated road travel distance was so wide that people hardly thought it was fraud. “While nearly half of respondents submitted false mileage reports, only one in 10 admitted to having committed fraud,” one survey found.

WebExpense chief executive Adam Reynolds says the pandemic has changed things.

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For one thing, there were a lot of business trips before the arrival of Covid, so it was easy to meet mileage fraud. “People will add or add elements to their journey so they can come back a little bit more,” he told me last week.

In many organizations, the pandemic introduced more digital systems, including software Reynolds sells to handle expenses. He says this has made it difficult to falsify mileage claims. It sounded like something to me that someone who sells Expense software would say.

But he argues that digital systems use algorithms to flag inconsistent mileage claims that a human manager might miss by manually signing an expense report.

An employee who is required to include postcodes for the start and end of a trip in a digital system linked to Google Maps, for example, may have their claim flagged if it does not match the distance shown on an online map.

This is understandable, but I doubt it will completely eliminate a problem with such remarkable staying power. As Reynolds puts it: “People will try to claim anything.”

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