2 dreaded words: Expense reports

Technology can't fix this process fast enough

On my list of favourite chores, filing my expense report falls somewhere between going to the dentist and dragging an overflowing green compost bin to the curb in the middle of a steamy August heat wave.

In other words, I hate it.

Expense reports are not case studies in corporate efficiency. They do, however, serve one purpose — as a glaring reminder of red tape and bureaucracy.

I’m willing to bet that at your organization, they also offer a master class in inconsistency. The black-and-white rules exist, collecting dust on a shelf or occupying a few megabytes of storage in the cloud.

But they are just as surely ignored by claimers and approvers alike.

The system may tell me I don’t need a receipt for anything less than $50, but if it gets routed to the wrong bean counter, I may be presented with a demand to produce a receipt for the $12.40 taxi ride I took in Las Vegas two months ago.

Meanwhile, a cubicle dweller from three seats over (you know who you are) faces zero scrutiny or demand for a receipt for a lavish $600 dinner because his boss has a lightning-fast trigger finger on the approval button.

Keep that inbox clean and no scrutiny necessary, please and thank you.

But me? I’m thinking of calling in a Canadian Forces CC-130 Hercules to help in my panicked search for the handwritten scrawl from that overly friendly taxi driver, praying that he legibly wrote down exactly $12.40, that I remembered which coat pocket I stuffed it into and that it lines up perfectly with the charge sitting on my Amex.

When I successfully submit an expense report, a sense of warm joy slowly floods over me. I feel like a group of teenagers who have just solved the last puzzle in an escape room and opened the door to freedom.

I’m a Chief Scout. I’m also a Queen’s Venturer. Unless you spent your youth shaking hands on the left, you probably have no idea what that means. Which means you also probably don’t get the left-hand thing.

If I stop talking in code, it’s a very long way of saying I was a boy scout, and that I earned two of the highest accolades from Scouts Canada.

It’s also my way of saying I would never dream of cheating on an expense report — it’s not in my DNA and it therefore makes it doubly annoying to have to jump through hoops to prove trivial work-related expenses are legitimate.

But, clearly, some employees think nothing of treating expense accounts like a personal piggy bank.

Late last month, Reuters told the tale of an industrial equipment company worker in the United States who billed the company for US$12,000 in doggie day spa charges. It took the company more than a year to discover the fraud. The employer later found out the same worker “was running a scheme to sell more than US$200,000 in company equipment on eBay,” said Reuters.

No merit badges for that guy, says my inner scout.

That’s simply one story in what the Austin, Texas-based Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) says is a US$7-billion annual problem in the U.S.

Put another way, about 10 per cent of expenses have a problem that needs to be addressed. The Reuters story said “only” about 10 per cent — but that’s a staggering number.

I think CFOs would be rightly horrified to think that one in 10 expense reports contains something fraudulent.

Fortunately, most of the mistakes aren’t deliberate. One of the most common problems identified is employees accidentally claiming the same expense twice. (My faith in humanity is restored.)

“That happens more often than you can imagine,” Anant Kale, CEO of AppZen — which builds technology that audits expenses — told Reuters. “It’s fraud, but it’s an honest mistake.”

More telling is this stat — zero. That is the number of times App- Zen has screened expense reports at a company and found no problems.

What’s the solution? More training won’t dent the problem — anyone with an expense account already knows the drill.

Instead, we should turn our eyes to the hottest of all trends — artificial intelligence (AI) — for a solution.

Andi McNeal, director of ACFE, said robots are able to catch fraud “more than twice as fast and… losses are halved,” according to Reuters. And forget spot-checks — every single expense is given a thorough check by technology.

If you marry that technology with a system that saves me from having to uncrumple the receipts from that big HR conference, well, filing my expense report will shoot up the charts of my favourite things.

It will land somewhere between scrubbing that pan I forgot about from last night’s dinner and vacuuming behind the couch.

In the meantime, I’ve got a hotel bill I need to itemize. See you in three hours.

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