Dance classes. Taxidermy. Toilet paper. An entire side of beef. Those are some of the more eyebrow-raising items that have shown up on employee expense reports, according to a survey by Robert Half. Some employees are willing to push the envelope when it comes to getting reimbursed.
The temptation to stick your employer with the bill for personal items might be even stronger if you have a company credit card. It’s just so easy to swipe that piece of plastic. But watch out. Companies are on the lookout for employees who misuse their corporate cards, and they’re finding a lot of scofflaws. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, 31.8% of small businesses with fewer than 100 employees experience cases of fraud. Roughly 20.6% of businesses with 10,000 employees or more experience cases of fraud. In small businesses, expense reimbursement fraud (getting the company to pay for non-business expenses) is among the top five most common issues.
You’ll be able to tell from your company policies, and the attitudes in your office, how stringent your company policy on corporate card use is. Some companies might allow personal charges provided you pay that portion of the bill yourself. Others don’t allow any personal expenses to go on the card. Your card might even have spending limits and prohibit charges in certain categories to reduce the risk of fraud.
Whether your company has a flexible or firm policy on company credit card use, there are some things you shouldn’t use your corporate plastic for. To avoid sticky situations with management, think twice before putting these five types of charges on your company card.
1. Unauthorized travel expenses
Corporate cards are often given to employees to make business travel easier. But what qualifies as an approved expense can vary depending on the company you work for, and it’s a good idea to know whether you can charge the company for the upgrade to business class, whether it’ll foot the bill for your gas, and whether food (and especially drinks) is included, too.
As CreditCards.com explains, it’s important to know this for a few reasons. Not only will it keep you out of hot water with your boss, but it can also save you from paying those bar tabs later. There are generally two types of company cards: the kind where you apply for it on behalf of working for the company and the one your company applies for. If you applied for the card, it’s likely an individual payment card. You’re responsible for submitting the expenses on each bill, and you pay those balances yourself with funds that are reimbursed to you from your company. If it’s a company payment card, the firm foots the bill directly, paying for all approved expenses.
However, in the case of unapproved purchases, it’s likely the company will require you to pay for those charges, regardless of which type of card you’ve been issued. In that case, you’ll be paying for the plane upgrade and martini lunch yourself — which can make for a nasty surprise when it’s time to pay the bill.
2. Combined company and personal shopping trips
You might have been sent to a local grocery store to pick up office supplies. And you charged all of the paper supplies, Post-Its, and snacks on the company card. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it becomes a problem when you sneak in extra snacks or the ingredients for your dinner. If you’re making a joint shopping trip, it’s best to pull out two separate forms of payment. Your co-worker might have tried to purchase a pack of diapers on the company card, but chances are they’ll eventually be found out.
Yes, it might be efficient to add in a few purchases that are unnecessary for the office or even throw in the peanut butter you’ve been meaning to pick up. For the sake of everyone involved, it’s just not worth it.
3. Anything you want to keep secret
It’s easy to forget when you’re out of town on business. But someone in the corporate office is probably going to look over your credit card bill at some point. And they’ll see exactly what you charged. In other words, you want to think twice before you order a pay-per-view movie at the hotel, hit the strip club, pick up some lingerie at Victoria’s Secret, or order another round of cocktails after dinner.
Of course, activities that would raise eyebrows at some companies — such as taking clients to a gentleman’s club — might be OK at others. As always, you need to understand your employer’s stance to avoid an embarrassing chat with accounting and even losing your job.
4. Parking tickets and other fines
So you were running late for a meeting and snagged the first parking spot available, even though it was in the 15-minute parking zone. The ticket you find on your window is your responsibility. And using your company card to pay it could land you in hot water, according to the business travel experts at Concur.
The same thing goes if you got a speeding ticket while traveling. But an exception to the general rule might apply if you ended up with a ticket because a meeting ran late, Canadian Business explained.
5. Personal charges disguised as business expenses
A flight to a tropical island for vacation shouldn’t go on your company card, and neither should the hotel you stay in. More than $20,000 in personal expenditures, including the car you need to get to work, doesn’t qualify either. It’s best to think of your personal and company expenses as church and state. Separate is better, and safer, if you’d like to stay on good terms with your employer.
Still, it can be easy to label personal expenses as business expenses, especially if they fall in a gray area. Yet paying for dinners with friends while out of town on business, extras while traveling (such as the toiletries you forgot to pack), or bringing your kids along on your business trip and then billing the company for their meals are likely to be frowned upon.
Before you whip out your corporate card, make sure you understand your company policy. When in doubt, ask a supervisor or trusted colleague. And above all, don’t get caught in the murkiness of ethical ambiguity. Dr. Gabriela Corá, president of the Miami-based consulting firm Executive Health & Wealth Institute Inc., told CreditCards.com you should ask yourself this question: “Is this 100 percent related to your job?” For expenses that aren’t expressly covered by your training or policy, she said, “Common sense will guide you.”
Additional reporting by Nikelle Murphy.