Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation from her role as Speaker of the House of Representatives on 2 August. Yes, it was because of a political scandal, but rather than compromising emails or discriminatory remarks, it was something a little less typical: her use of travel entitlements.
Bishop first sparked outrage when it was revealed she racked up thousands of dollars in travel expenses going to and from events, the latest of which was a $5000 charge for a helicopter ride from Melbourne to far away and exotic … Geelong.
While entitlements such as this are not uniform across all sectors, this does raise questions about what constitutes a reasonable business expense. It’s important to have clear travel expenditure policies in place, but the task of monitoring employee movements becomes more complicated when that employee is someone high up within the organisation – perhaps even your own boss.
So why and how does this type of oversight occur? More importantly, what policies need to be in place to prevent misuse of power such as this one?
Peter Wilson, AHRI national president, says that when you have someone in power for a long period of time and they have autonomy to organise their own travel, that’s when you get problems like this.
“People get confused about what’s a private benefit and what’s an expense relevant to their position,” he says. The issue is compounded when organisations have unclear policies about employee travel. “Any good travel policy needs to state that staff shoud travel by the least costly and most convenient method, as well as specifying the acceptable class of travel and the most appropriate method of travel for the distance.”
There are simple steps that businesses can take to prevent their own ‘choppergate’ scandal, or at the very least nip any abuses of company privileges in the bud. Wilson recommends that all travel expenses go through an approval process, regardless of the employee’s standing within an organisation.
“It’s difficult with senior-level positions, but everyone has a boss,” he says. “Whether it’s another board member, a president, a C-suite officer, there’s always someone that can be a valid approver,” Wilson says.
If there is a policy breach, there are several courses of action HR can take to address the issue. Give the employee a chance to either defend his or her actions or make remunerations.
When the individual abusing policy is a manager or senior executive, it can be intimidating or difficult to raise the issue directly with the individual. One good resource for HR departments investigating travel expense abuse is the organisation’s legal counsel. According to Wilson, they are a good third party to consult on matters such as this, as they have legal obligations to uphold civil and criminal law, and claims can be made anonymously.
“If you have an employee – no matter the level – who is exceeding expenditures, that is theft,” he says. “If internal counsel is uncooperative, then consider other options, like external counsel or an ombudsman.”
This is a case where the best defence is a good offence. Clear communication between employees and management about acceptable travel expenditures, chains of authorisation and a clear paper trail will help prevent potential headaches in the future.