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Treat yo’self! (But not on the employer’s dime)

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If you are a Parks and Recreation fan like me, you remember the “Treat Yo’Self Day” episodes featuring Tom and Donna, two of the employees of Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks and Recreation Department.  For those of you who haven’t watched the show, Tom and Donna would take an annual day off of work to shop, indulge and, as the name of the day denotes, “treat” themselves.  Their special day has spawned a real-world phenomenon, along with mugs, t-shirts and key chains with slogans to inspire you to Treat.  Yo.  Self.

I was reminded of these episodes last week, when a colleague forwarded to me an article titled The Weirdest Things People Have Tried to Expense on Their Boss’s Dime.  While Tom and Donna financed their own pampering days, the informal study cited in the article showed that many employees consider their business expense accounts to be the source of funding for their personal Treat Yo’Self Days.

After reading the article, I think the most entertaining examples of items that employees tried to expense are:

  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Half a cow
  • A dog (Note: a few of us here have asked the partners many times whether we could have a dog in the office, but we never expected that RT would pay for it.)

The article identified the above as expense requests, but didn’t delve into whether any of these requests were actually approved. In my experience, it can be well after-the-fact that employers realize that they’ve paid an employee’s non-business expenses. While it is important to encourage employees to engage in proactive stress reduction, the company should not be responsible for financing lavish shopping trips and other personal indulgences.

As an employer, how do you guard against bankrolling an employee’s Treat Yo’Self Day?

  • Clear expense policies: Expense policies should spell out: what constitutes a proper expense; what expenses or type of expenses are explicitly prohibited; if and when prior approval is required and how it must be sought; the accountability of employees, managers and accounting personnel in overseeing expense reimbursement requests; and the consequences of breaching the policy, up to and including termination of employment.
  • Notice to employees of those clear expense policies: No matter how clear the expense policy is, employees must be notified of the policy and should provide acknowledgment in writing that they understand and are bound by such a policy. Otherwise, the employer will have a tough time relying on the restrictions in the policy in the event of a breach.
  • Careful review of expense submissions: Managers who sign-off on expense reports without reviewing them and accounting personnel who reimburse employees without double-checking the reports – this is a recipe for expense fraud. Diligent review of these reports is a key way to deter the submission of, and payment of, improper expenses and avoid a costly, unwieldy and belated audit.
  • Discipline for breaching the policy: If the employer has a clear policy, of which the employee was notified, and the employer determines, after careful investigation (including giving the opportunity for the employee to explain the apparent discrepancy), that the policy was breached, the employer can discipline the employee for the breach. At a minimum, the employee should be required to repay the employer, if the expense has already been reimbursed.  Beyond that, the employer should document the breach and warn the employee in writing that further breaches will result in more serious consequences, including termination.  If the breaches are ongoing, intentional and egregious, the employer may be justified in terminating the employee’s employment for just cause.

So, we encourage employers to tell their employees to follow Tom and Donna’s lead. Tell them to “Treat Yo’Self”… but follow the above-noted advice and make sure it’s not on the employer’s dime.

Jennifer Heath

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Jennifer Heath is an enthusiastic lawyer who is dedicated to improving the health and productivity of her clients’ workplaces. Jennifer advises clients on a wide range of common law, contractual and statutory obligations, including those obligations under the Employment Standards Act, 2000Labour Relations Act and the Human Rights Code.  Her work also involves representing clients before the Superior Court of Justice, the Small Claims Court, the Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario Labour Board.