Have you heard of something called, “Cab+5”? “Cab+5” is a principle used among some consultants and other professionals who travel for work in which they regularly add $5 to the price of their cab fares when they submit their expenses. I witnessed a version of this once when Colleague A was talking about a $100 purse she wanted but had only budgeted $50 to purchase it; Colleague B asked if she was going to wait until the next month to get the purse, and A said, “Nah. I’m about to do expenses, and that’s just a few extra cab receipts.” We all laughed, two of us uncomfortably. Neither I nor B reported what the purse purchaser said, even though both of us knew what she was planning was wrong.
In the moment, I justified this to myself that I shouldn’t raise my hand because I was new to the team and didn’t want to get a veteran colleague in trouble. I didn’t want to endure the shunning that I knew would follow. I also didn’t want the expense submission process to become any more burdensome than it already was. We’d all heard stories from the old-timers about the “good old days,” when submitting expenses involved a simple spreadsheet e-mailed to Finance with no receipts required for expenses under $25 and no itemization for hotel bills. Then we heard the stories about Sales ruining it for everyone by engaging in sketchy behavior, like billing adult movies and the entire contents of the mini-bar back to the company.
Part of the justification also involved the small amount being overexpensed. The conversation immediately prior to the one about the purse was how we were all losing money doing our jobs because of random, lost receipts. Rough estimates put our losses anywhere from $5-$100 a month, and because of the strict rules put in place that didn’t have the flexibility to allow for the exceptions that make business travel more humane, there was no way to be reimbursed. (I have a friend, C, who arrived at her hotel at 1:30am after a delayed flight that kept her from eating dinner. She was exhausted and uncomfortable with the idea of looking for a place to eat in an unfamiliar city, and room service was closed. So she ate the bag of peanut M&Ms from the mini-bar at the exorbitant price of $7, and Finance refused to reimburse her because of the ban on mini-bar purchases. The incident happened seven years ago, but she can still tell you every detail like it happened yesterday.)
In corporate C&E, we often focus on the duty of our employees to do the right thing and to demonstrate their loyalty to the company by not engaging in misconduct. There’s some debate over whether we need to reward employees for doing the right thing – after all, isn’t that why we pay them their salaries? Tom Fox wrote a great article late last month about the role of compensation in preventing corruption and misconduct. One of the things he wrote is that if employees are adequately and appropriately compensated, there’s less need and vulnerability to misconduct.
“Cab+5” and A’s conduct constitute embezzlement. It’s wrong, B and I should have reported it, and we were wrong for not doing so. But I wonder if there’s room at the decision-making levels of our companies to look at the root causes of “harmless” misconduct that seem commonplace and are tacitly endorsed by management in the middle and lower parts of reporting lines. Of course it’s true that employees shouldn’t engage in misconduct, but in addition to making it difficult to do the wrong thing, shouldn’t we also be thinking about how to make it easy to do the right thing?