What you need to know if you’re fiddling with your spending

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Last week, when a pollster asked Britons what they thought of their Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, they were quick to use words such as ‘liar’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘dishonest’.

This is understandable. Johnson is the first sitting UK Prime Minister to be punished for breaking the law – for attending a surprise birthday party in Downing Street during a Covid lockdown. He is also fighting accusations of knowingly misleading Parliament about such events.

Yet when it comes to honesty at work, he’s not entirely alone.

When other pollsters asked UK workers if they had ever done anything dishonest at work, a sizeable number said they had, especially when it came to their expenses.

Johnson’s predicament just so happens to have come as a new round of expense allegations made headlines. A military man, a CEO and a group of bankers are among the cases I have noticed in the last few weeks alone. There are probably many more that I missed.

Obviously, none of this remotely excuses Johnson who, apart from anything else, broke the rules set by his own government.

Yet each time I see a new report of suspicious claims, it reminds me of some corporate wisdom that an executive passed on to me many years ago. If a company wants to fire someone, the easiest way to do so is to review their expenses, because the chances of finding something technically fireable are so high.

This ties in with surveys done over the years for Webexpenses, a UK-based software company.

A 2016 poll found that 20% of UK employees admitted to exaggerating their expense reports, while 29% thought it was normal to be dishonest at work.

The main reasons given by fiddlers for cheating were: to compensate for a low salary, their employer could afford it and everyone else did.

Another survey by the same company found that spend cheats claimed an average of £451 a year; men cheated more than women, and almost a third did not feel guilty because they felt they deserved it.

The British were not unique. The researchers found that workers from North America, Australia and New Zealand were also prone to the scam.

Among the deceptions revealed, an Australian admitted to asking for condoms and another to having his nails done. An American claimed tickets to a Chicago Cubs baseball game, taking a brother instead of a customer, while a countryman went to Nashville for a concert and claimed it as a business trip. But one type of expense fraud has eclipsed all others: mileage.

The exaggeration of road distances was so widespread that people hardly seemed to consider it a fraud. “While around half of respondents submitted false mileage reports, only one in 10 admit to committing fraud,” a survey found.

The pandemic may have changed things, says Adam Reynolds, chief executive of Webexpenses.

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For one, there was a lot more business travel before Covid hit, so mileage fraud was easier to accomplish. “People were rounding up or adding things to their trip so they could get a little more back,” he told me last week.

In many organizations, the pandemic has also ushered in more digital systems, including the software Reynolds sells to manage expenses. He says this has made it harder to falsify mileage claims. Sounded like something someone selling expense software would say to me.

But he argues that digital systems use algorithms to flag abnormal mileage claims that a human manager manually signing an expense report might miss.

An employee who needs to include postcodes for the start and end of a trip in a digital system linked to Google Maps may also find, for example, that their claim is flagged if it does not match the distance shown on a map. in line.

Makes sense, but I doubt it completely eradicates a problem with such remarkable stamina. As Reynolds says, “People will try to claim anything.”

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