We have an infestation at the office where I work. There are grotesque creepie-crawlie creatures that emerge from the floorboards and scamper around the office. At some point or another they turn up in every part of the company. We try to maintain our professional demeanor when confronted with these pests, but it’s genuinely difficult to keep from shrieking in terror when they unexpectedly appear in our work area.
Depending on the size of your company, you probably have the same problem. Accountants seem to be an occupational hazard almost everywhere.
I’ve often pondered the “nature or nurture” question. Is there a certain defective subspecies of humanity that naturally gravitates toward accounting as a career choice, or do accountants start out relatively normal and suffer gradual deterioration of their personality as a result of the job? Either way, accountants are what they are, and no white-collar employee can manage to totally avoid dealing with them – especially if you have to travel on business.
Many years ago, filling out an expense report was a tedious and daunting manual process. Over time, however, new tools such as spreadsheet software have come along to make the task easier by handling the calculations and simplifying the process of making revisions. Accountants have responded by generating scads of arcane, indecipherable rules and procedures, so that completing an expense report is now a tedious and daunting semi-automated process. In the business world, this is called progress.
If you are old enough to remember a time before spreadsheets, you might also remember that business travel used to be considered a “perk.” Today, thanks to the airlines who realized that they can treat their passengers like shit and still be profitable (because we really don’t have a choice when it comes to air travel), and corporate travel agencies who book you into inconveniently-located fleabag hotels from the “approved” list, business travel is now about as enjoyable as oral surgery. And once the ordeal is over and you finally return home, along come the accountants to add a heavy dose of misery to the process of getting your expenses reimbursed.
Early this year, I had a brief business trip. Upon my return, I filled out my expense report, had it approved by my boss, and sent it in to the Accounting department for processing. A few days later, I got a phone call from Karen.
Allow me to point out that Karen is not an accountant. Karen is a lovely person who just happens to work in Accounting. Her boss, Phil, is…an accountant.
“There was a problem with your expense report,” she said.
I was surprised. “What, did I screw up the math or something?”
“No,” she replied. “You don’t have enough detail. Phil is coming to talk to you about it.”
Within the hour, as I sat at my workstation, I heard the wet, slithering sound that indicated Phil was approaching my cubicle. He was holding my expense report and wearing a tight-lipped smile.
“Okay, Phil,” I said. “What did I do wrong?”
“You don’t have detailed justification for your meals,” he said.
Now, I have been in the working world for many, many years. It has always been the policy on expense reports to add a detailed justification only if you are paying for someone else’s meals in addition to your own. I have never been asked to justify my own personal meals on an expense report. I explained this to Phil.
“Sorry, but our policy is that you have to have a detailed explanation for all meal expenses, even your own,” he said.
“Really?” I could barely contain my frustration.
Phil threw his hands up. “Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.”
Whether they were his rules or not, Phil clearly enjoyed enforcing them. He was still smiling and practically vibrating with delight. I was dearly hoping he would have the courtesy to return to his own office before he started touching himself.
That afternoon, as I peevishly added the extraneous details, I hatched a plan for revenge. I was not going to take this lying down. I would strike back using the only method allowed in the corporate environment – malicious compliance. My next expense report would be completely accurate, but the justification section would be a masterpiece of passive-aggressive sarcasm.
My chance came at the end of February. I made a two-day trip to Atlanta to install a server. The following excerpts are copied verbatim from my expense report.
SECTION V) BUSINESS PURPOSE FOR TRIP/EXPENSE
Install server hardware and software upgrades.
SECTION VI) DETAILED EXPLANATION OF EXPENSES
Feb. 27/Line 1/$12.00
This expense is for personal mileage incurred when my wife drove me to the airport. This was necessary in order to be able to board the airplane which would take me to my destination in order to perform my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades.
Feb. 27/Line 2/$289.40
This item includes airfare charges, baggage check fees, and the service fee charged by our travel agent even though I did all the work involved to book the trip. Airfare is required to be paid before they will let you fly on the plane which would take me to my destination in order to perform my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades.
Feb. 28/Line 3/$38.51
This expense item is for car rental, which was required because walking from the airport to the business location was impractical and would have wasted valuable time that I should have been spending performing my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades. This entry also includes the cost of refilling the rented car with gasoline. Gasoline is required by automobiles and other vehicles with internal combustion engines in order to make them go. I chose to refill the tank myself in order to avoid a fuel service surcharge from the rental agency, which would be a violation of corporate travel policy.
Feb. 28/Line 5/$33.60
This item represents the taxi fare to return me to my home from the airport after completing my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades. On this return trip, my wife was unavailable to drive me from the airport, and while I seriously considered walking the 24 miles from O’Hare Airport to my home, I opted to hire a taxi from our corporate approved service since this perquisite is allowed under the terms of our corporate travel policy.
Feb. 27/Line 7/$71.68
This is an expense for hotel lodging while at my destination, so that I could avail myself of basic shelter and a place to sleep during such time as I was not actively involved in performing the duties of my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades. Again, this relative luxury is allowed under the terms of our corporate travel policy, but any guilt I may feel at taking unfair advantage of the company’s largesse was tempered by the substandard quality of the accommodations provided at this particular hotel, use of which is mandated by our travel policy as the official “approved” hotel for business trips to this location.
Feb. 27/Line 8/$42.76
This expense item is for the consumption of personal meals during the execution of my stated business purpose (section V above), which was to install server hardware and software upgrades. Food is processed by the human body and turned into energy (a function analogous to the use of gasoline by automobiles, as explained above in the documentation for line item 3). Again, I took great pains not to abuse the generosity of the company by partaking of opulent and expensive dining establishments, a decision based not only on my strong personal ethics but also the overnight timetable required for the execution of my business duties, the end result of which was two consecutive visits to Waffle House within a single six-hour period.
My boss had a good chuckle as he signed off on the report, and it was submitted to Accounting. Several days went by, and I heard nothing in response. So I called Karen.
“Did you get my last expense report?” I asked.
“There was nothing wrong with it,” Karen said, “so I just sent it on.”
I hung up in stunned silence. I couldn’t believe I’d spent two hours writing this expense report and they hadn’t even read it.
As I said, Karen is a lovely person, but she is also a woman, meaning that it is in her nature to withhold satisfaction. Unbeknownst to me, the expense report was making the rounds of the Accounting department, to general amusement. Karen wasn’t about to allow me to gloat just yet.
That afternoon, Phil came to visit. He was smiling, and at first I thought I was in serious trouble. But I noticed that his smile was somehow different this time. It looked almost…human.
“We enjoyed your expense report,” Phil said. “In fact, we’re thinking of revising the rules to require everyone to include that level of detail.”
There was a twinkle in his eyes accompanying that startlingly genuine smile. He walked away, and I noticed the absence of a slithering sound this time. I began to think there might be hope for him after all.
The voice of my boss came over the cubicle wall. “If he does, I will kill you, Mister Sarcasm.”