What Is Expense Reimbursement?

How Do Employees Get Paid Back When They Spend Money on Business?

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Expense reimbursement is a method for paying employees back when they spend their own money while working on company time. These expenses generally occur when an employee is traveling for business.

Travel expenses can include lodging, flights, ground transportation, tips to bellhops, meals, and other incidental expenses an employee might experience while traveling for work. Other business expenses can include such items as taking clients or prospective employees to lunch or dinner, purchasing necessary books or other educational materials that the employer covers, or driving expenses.

Types of expenses that an organization will reimburse are found in the company’s business travel, entertainment, and general reimbursable expenses policies in the employee handbook. In some cases, expenses such as dry cleaning and gym membership on extended trips are covered. While client entertainment on business trips is a common reimbursable expense, most companies set spending limits on food and entertainment.  

How Employees Pay for Expenses

Increasingly, businesses are entrusting low- to mid-level employees who travel frequently with corporate credit cards. Instead of paying for expenses with their own money, employees charge all but incidentals and tips to the company credit card.

This is a convenient approach to expense reimbursement for the employee because the credit card bills document the exact expenses without the employee having to save receipts and fill out travel expense reports.

Another method for paying employees for business travel expenses is with a per diem. Per diem is the pre-determined daily allowance paid to employees for expenses incurred while traveling for business. These expenses could be for lodging, meals, tips, taxi, and other ground transportation fees.

Filling Out the Expense Report

In both the case of the company credit card use and paying cash, employees will likely have to fill out an expense reimbursement report upon returning from the trip. With the company credit card, they will have to explain less than obvious charges that appear on the credit card bill (such as a late-night meal). They will also charge the company for the additional incidentals they paid for with their own money or credit card.

When an employee pays cash, he or she will need to list, and occasionally justify, each expense for which reimbursement is requested. Most companies set a date by which expense reimbursement reports must be submitted and all expenses are reviewed by accounting as are the statements from the credit card company. Any unjustified expense, or those excluded by company policy, is not reimbursed — causing problems for the employee.

Unusual Situations

Let's say a sales rep takes a pet with them on a trip and charges a hotel pet fee to the company credit card, claiming the hotel would not separate out the fee and they planned to reimburse the company.

Is that a misuse of company funds? It seems so. Whether in writing or not, it's pretty clear, the use of a company credit card is to be used for company expenses only. In some instances, personal use of a corporation can result in termination. However, here's what you need to consider. Did the employee go to accounting and explain the problem that the hotel was unable to separate out the pet charges? Or, was the employee caught by a careful review of her expenses in accounting?

Another consideration is, have other employees been reimbursed by the company in the past for similar expenses? If so, disciplinary action is not in order. However, if company policy clearly states a specific expense is not allowed, and the employee is caught (not forthright) then HR should take some kind of severe disciplinary action. Not every situation is clear-cut. Sometimes you have to inquire and do a bit of digging around before taking action.