Liars, Compliance and Beers: Oh My

Dec 03

Last night I observed some corporate fraud. The kind that happens every single day – probably thousands of times a day – in airport bars, restaurants and pubs all across North America. It was for a tiny amount, less than $10, but it got me thinking about the big implications of small actions.

The guy beside me did nothing illegal. He did something perfectly normal for a Friday night: he drank a beer.

But as he got out his wallet to pay for it, he asked the bartender to “ring it in as food” because his company policy did not allow him to expense alcohol while on business travel. And the bartender happily obliged. “You wouldn’t believe how many so-called hot dogs we sell here”. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Who cares, right. Maybe 7 bucks, he could have spent triple that on a steak dinner and cost his employer way more money. If this pint was his only claim for the day, he’s probably doing them a favour, right?

I wanted to ask him what company he worked for, but didn’t. I’m glad I resisted, because now I know that the company has a culture of deception, and its employees are liars. These little sleights of hand are a slippery slope. If we cheat with a fake $7 meal chit, do we become more comfortable with a $50 gift card from a supplier? What about a $2000 creative-accounting commission report? How about a forged signature on a safety inspection? What’s that tipping point on the moral compass?

This guy, the manager who signs the expense report, the accounting clerk who double checks the addition of all the neatly stapled receipts probably know exactly what happens. Because everybody does it. Yet they jump through this little hoop of deception to be compliant to some arbitrary corporate policy. It made me wonder why these policies exist.

Save money? Unlikely. The amount in question was probably less than most of the appetizers on the restaurant menu. Cost controls can be easily imposed with strict per-diem ceilings. 10 bucks is 10 bucks. Demanding scrutiny of menu choices is just micro-management at that point.

Morality? Perhaps. Some companies attempt to project a particular ‘brand’ by setting ethical or family values standards. We observe just how successful these policies are every time we turn on the evening news.

Liability? Perhaps. Maybe some type of travel or corporate insurance clause is rendered null and void if alcohol is involved. If that’s the case, it was clearly a #fail in this scenario.

I don’t have an answer to this issue, but it bothered me. I felt as though I had just witnessed an otherwise nice person break a rule for the purpose of meeting a compliance obligation. I became uncomfortable wondering if this was just the tip of the iceberg.

And, I’m haunted by the image of the some poor shipping dude at the airport having to pull boxes and boxes of frozen hotdogs through security inspection because of a sudden spike in sales…