History tells us that the first expense report was filed by Attila the Hun. It seems that the only way he could get backers for his pillaging expeditions was to promise that he'd keep careful records and bring back lots of receipts. Attila's downfall came when the accounting department held up his check for several years because of an error in addition. Thanks to Attila's lack of attention to detail, history was changed and mankind was spared many additional years of terror. But though the horror of the Mongol hordes is long past, the curse of expense reports is still with us.
The typical expense report form is a masterpiece of bad design. Over a field of tiny boxes the headings read: Business purp./expnse/expl/color client's eyes/political affiliation/Super Bowl point spread/are you making any of this up?
Of course, the form is designed so that it's impossible to fill out. What better way for the accounting department to hold up your reimbursement check for weeks than to make the form more difficult to figure out than the Sunday crossword puzzle? There's an unwritten rule in accounting departments across the land that says the larger your reimbursement, the longer the delay must be. Accountants get a great kick out of knowing that American Express will soon be sending Vito “The Knee Crusher” directly to your door to collect. About the time you get your third reminder from the credit bureau threatening to sell your loved ones into slavery, you get a phone call from Madge in accounting.
"Good morning," says Madge icily. "We here in accounting have been going over your expenses from the Florida trip and have noticed a few discrepancies. First of all, in the tiny gray column clearly marked: transportation/mode/chg. co./mileage allowance/formula for the area of a circle, you put a RCP instead of an RCT. We here in accounting feel it necessary to remind you that the RCP code has been discontinued, and any use of it is tantamount to downright perjury, if you get our drift. Secondly, and far more seriously, you stapled your receipts to the hard copy that you sent us. We here in accounting don't like staples because they cause unsightly holes and force us to use that little staple puller that never really works correctly. So, it's my pleasure to inform you that you'll have to resubmit your expenses and we will have to withhold your reimbursement of $979. Have a nice day."
This, of course, brings us to the topic of receipts, those tiny pieces of paper that fuel accounting departments. Gathering receipts, the bane of business travelers, is what makes some trips less fun than noisy dental work. After a hard day of swapping business cards, who wants to plead for a receipt from a surly cabbie who's just taken you to the Rockefeller Hilton by way of Bayonne? When you get home, it's even more fun trying to decipher what all those crumpled wine-stained pieces of paper mean. After all, when you and your clients were polishing off that third bottle of Chateau Lafitte '66, were receipts really on your mind?
But gathering receipts for domestic travel is a walk in the park compared to overseas trips. The most interesting thing about an international business trip is the magical formula called the Exchange Rate. This changes daily because it's tied to the barometric pressure of the country that you're visiting. This means that if a cup of coffee costs 3 zloties on Tuesday it will cost 4 zloties on Wednesday — or maybe 2. It doesn't really matter, because when you ask for a receipt in a foreign language you have no chance of getting one. Sure, the phrase book will give you a phonetic guide for receipt-asking. You'll say, "Ess uh kuh poot-etre unh billaj du joorno?" with ease. Which means you'll be handed a sheep's head. Won't Madge be surprised to find that stapled to the expense report?
After you return home, you'll get the credit card bill with incomprehensible conversion statistics and line items that say: "Service de Menu EU 7.035; Confusee de client EU 999.0; pressur de barometrique lp 33 1/3." Naturally, when Madge receives an international expense report she couldn't be more delighted. With the exchange rates, receipt attaching penalties, and secret accounting codes for foreign tipping procedures, it'll be years before you ever see your reimbursement.
Anyway, since we all know that expense reports are going to be a permanent part of our lives, what say we start up a receipt-swapping club? I have a few non-descript parking receipts with the totals left blank, and I could really use some upscale New York restaurant receipts with an illegible date. Give me a call. Let's make Madge's day.
By Mike Donlin, Senior Editor, SOCcentral.com