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It wasn’t so long ago that expense policies regarding meals were fairly ambiguous. It was pretty common to read a policy statement that said something like, “While on travel, the meals you eat and expense against the company should be representative of the types of meals you eat while you’re at home.” Read through the eyes of a care-free traveler, however, that policy looks like: “Any appetizer, alcohol, entrée, or dessert is ‘fair game’ since I consume all of those at home at one time or another!” If you’ve ever wondered how a petite young traveler can rack up totals of $50 per night on dinner, the only way to find out for sure is to start reading the itemized receipts.
If you don’t have a policy that requires your travelers to submit itemized receipts for their meals, then there’s no way you can enforce other policies like “no reimbursement for alcohol unless there are customers present,” etc. Travelers can (and do) hide almost anything in an un-itemized receipt. With a limit of $50 on dinner, I’ve seen people have souvenirs, T-shirts, bar ware, and other non-food items for their "meal." Why should the company reimburse someone who eats at McDonald’s out of their own pocket, then stops by Hooters to buy can-cozies, calendars, and a sweatshirt? Requiring itemized receipts stops that behavior immediately.
Now, a manager certainly shouldn’t be required to scrutinize every receipt with a fine-toothed comb. In fact, itemized receipts shouldn’t even be required for meals under $20 or so. It’s a bit unreasonable to expect someone who grabs a quick meal at a food service kiosk or a hotdog stand to produce an itemized receipt. But occasional auditing of these receipts for larger meals would certainly yield some interesting results and the opportunity to save. It’s easy to catch the occasional bottle of wine, etc. Also, receipts with dual entrées and desserts should be matched with similar receipts from other days if/when employees take turns buying meals for each other. Basically, the number of entrées should match the number of traveling days.
Restaurants are quick to provide such receipts and since they’re computerized, you can always phone the restaurant several days later and, with the date and exact time from the “totaled” receipt, you should be able to secure a copy of the itemized one. Hotels are different. If a traveler eats a large meal in a hotel, the hotel folio will only show a line item that says “food service” and a totaled amount. Employees should be required to obtain an itemized receipt from the restaurant, even if the restaurant is part of the hotel.
Unfortunately, it’s only a few “problem travelers” that make this an issue in the first place. Travelers who’ve proven themselves responsible should be told as much by their managers. If one bad apple spoils the barrel, then the good apples should be told they’re still in fine shape. Nothing makes an honest traveler feel more scrutinized than a barrage of policies that they have never violated, so enforce this one intelligently and with care. Usually, “problem travelers” change their behavior for the better after they understand that their boss is watching their receipts.