Q: I work for a small high-tech company, and I am required as part of my duties to travel to various military installations around the country. A travel agent makes the airplane, hotel and car-rental reservations to get the cheapest fares possible, but I am required to pay for everything myself with my credit card and then submit the expenses for reimbursement.
I usually submit my expense report within three days after I return, but a month later, when my credit card bill comes through, I'm still waiting for the reimbursement check. Sometimes I have had to pay the bill to avoid paying interest charges.
What are the normal practices for companies to pay for travel, and if an employee's credit card is used, what is the appropriate time frame for payment to the employee? Could I ask my employer to add interest based on the number of days after submission of the expense report?
A: Road warriors face lots of obstacles: crowded airplanes, flight delays, lost luggage, angry spouses. Then there's the final horror: the expense report.
We took this question to Michael Carter, vice president of the Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based management consulting company that tracks trends in employee compensation. "The cardinal rule of expense reimbursement," Carter said, "is that the employee should be made whole" within the 30-day billing cycle.
Most companies either provide corporate credit cards or ask workers to use their own credit cards, he said.
It is a rare company today that provides traveler's checks or cash advances for all employee travel expenses, because that would be administratively cumbersome, Carter said. The problem with corporate credit cards is that occasionally an employee will run up a huge non-work-related bill on the card and then abruptly quit, leaving the employer on the hook for the expense. He said many workers prefer using their own credit cards because they can earn frequent-flier miles or other perks.
The letter writer, Carter said, is probably falling victim to a cost-conscious chief financial officer who is trying to reduce the borrowing from the company's corporate line of credit. Or the company may be having financial difficulties.
Carter also said that company officials may not realize the impact that slow repayment is having on its employees. Travel expense policies are established by highly compensated executives who may view the amounts involved as relatively insignificant, not understanding that for young people starting out and living on tight budgets, it can cause financial hardship. And indeed, most business travelers tend to be more affluent than average workers, Carter said.
The situation can be compounded by unsympathetic support staff who seldom travel themselves except when they're on vacation, and who may view business travel as a perk or junket rather than a hardship for the worker.
Carter urged the writer to diplomatically discuss the problem with higher-ranking executives at the firm who have the power to make changes in the reimbursement schedule. Otherwise, he should request permission to submit the interest expense as an additional expense of the trip, Carter said.
Q: I own a small high-technology company with about 20 employees and have been in business for a little more than 11 years. I am starting to have serious problems with one of my employees who works in sales support.
I did everything by the book in hiring her, and she seemed like a good find at the time. She's bright, has great credentials, loves her job and really wants to please. But she cannot focus on any task for more than an hour, has never really learned our products, makes bad judgments and simply screws up way too often. For example, she doesn't proofread what she writes to send our clients, and the memos usually contain typos and misspellings. It's the kind of thing that could create a perception of our organization as bad or sloppy. I need to figure out a way to let her go.
A: "If all else fails, tell the truth," said San Francisco employment lawyer Michael Lotito. Lotito said the employer needs to call the woman to his office and gently but firmly discuss her performance deficiencies, offering specific examples of problems caused by her inattention to details.
"You do it with dignity, you do it with respect," Lotito said. He said the biggest risk is making her so hurt and angry that she wants revenge, possibly through the courts. "Employment law is not about law," he said. "The first thing is about emotion, and the second thing is about money."
Lotito suggested that the employer give the worker a limited time frame in which to make improvements, telling her that she will otherwise be terminated. He suggested the employer might offer her a larger severance if she leaves quickly and less if she stays longer, perhaps while she seeks another job. He said the employer also should discuss the kind of reference he could give, particularly as the worker has notable good qualities and would probably do better in another line of work.
"It's a bridge to help her into the future," Lotito said.