Lucy works as a salesperson for a machine-parts company in the Pacific Northwest. She has to travel a lot to make sales calls; often out of state. Because she's on the road so much, she has to eat out all the time. She's not crazy about this, because she finds it difficult to eat healthily at fast-food and quick-service restaurants.
Her company appears to understand that she and her fellow salespeople have no choice but to eat out frequently. So it allows them to expense their meals on the road. But like too many companies, this one doesn't trust Lucy or her coworkers. It's apparently concerned that they will run up obscene meal expenses at luxury restaurants (at airports and rest areas — right!). So it came up with a policy.
Under this company's meal policy, Lucy and her colleagues can expense meals under the following restrictions:
- they have to be traveling for work
- they have to be 75 miles from home, and
- they can't spend more than $17.50 per meal.
OK, now the first restriction makes sense: this is supposed to ameliorate the hassles of eating while traveling on company business.
The second restriction also seems to make sense; the company's not interested in feeding its people while they're at home. But there's an unforeseen consequence here. Much of Lucy's travel is by airplane, and she often has to leave her home early in the morning to catch her flight, making it difficult to make breakfast at home before she leaves. Ideally, she would check in at the terminal and go through airport security, and then grab some breakfast before her flight takes off. But the airport is just 22 miles from her house, so the meal policy doesn't cover her breakfast. If she wants coffee and a muffin at the airport, it's on her nickel.
The last restriction also seems to make sense, setting a spending limit to avoid excessive meal expenses. And $17.50 is probably enough to get breakfast or lunch at most quick-service places, and dinner at a fast-food joint. But the problems arise with how the policy is enforced.
To get her lunch paid for, Lucy has to charge the meal on her company-issued credit card, and then fax or scan her itemized receipt to an accounting gnome at the home office. More than once, she has received admonishing emails or phone calls from these gnomes about nonconforming meals expenses. These, not surprisingly, displease her.
Another unintended consequence: Lucy and her fellow salespeople are self-interested, like most human beings, and they are smart. They quickly learn how to game the system, and find ways to charge meals under "The Price is Right" rules: they come as close as possible to $17.50 without going over. So the company often ends up paying more for meals than it would have if it hadn't set the $17.50 limit.
But the biggest and most damaging unintended consequence is that Lucy and her colleagues resent the meal restrictions. It is an irritant to them, especially when they are waking up at five in the morning to board a crowded commuter flight to go and sell the company's machine parts. While it's impossible to measure, I'd bet you breakfast at an airport terminal that the amount they lose in forgone sales stemming from employee malaise dramatically outweighs any money the company saves on meal expenses.
Employers: resist the urge to have policies like these. Treat your employees like adults. If they spend unreasonable amounts on meals or other expenses, talk to them about it. If it's a persistent problem with a particular employee who's taking advantage of the company, fire that employee. But don't assume that all your employees are trying to bilk the company for an extra airport donut.
Notes: As you might imagine, I don't want Lucy to get fired, so I have changed some of the identifying information. But the story is true … Also, I'm no fan of nickel-and-diming, whether it's employers doing it to their employees, or lawyers doing it to their clients.