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Balancing the books

Filling in expense sheets – the most tiresome administrative task – is nothing if not troublesome and tedious


I’ve seen them reduce hardened businessmen to tears. I’ve watched high-flying executives blank-faced with terror in front of them. I’ve witnessed corporate bosses capable of killing with a glare, turned into gibbering wrecks by them.

And I’ve personally sat as rigid as a rabbit hypnotised by a swaying cobra, riveted to the most feared phenomenon in the business travel world.

They are no respecter of rank, race, gender, religion or salary status. They can render us virtually unable to function, their grip is mesmerising and total.

They are – the expenses sheets.

We thought the company credit card would do away with all that expenses malarkey. Just sign on the dotted line and it all comes back to HQ duly itemised.

How wrong we were. Computers were meant to be the death of paper, and now we swim in a sea of it. And thus it has been with expenses. The company credit card didn’t end the weekly horror of the expenses sheets; it only made them more difficult.

Those drinks at the Tribeca Grill while I was waiting for my table? I paid cash and know they cost the equivalent of both arms and both legs, but how much exactly were they? And – damn it – can I even legitimately claim them?

I used cash for the sandwich and beers at lunch that day at the deli, and the receipt has vanished. But I have another nice little blank one I found somewhere else. Can I…you know….just get creative on the blank one? And if I’m found out – even though I have actually spent the money, albeit somewhere else for something else – will I get Gucci-booted out of my job?

Before I was entrusted with a company Amex card I was once sent to Florida at short notice with airline ticket and hotel pre-paid. But within a day I was told to immediately fly from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee – which I did. Then back to Fort Lauderdale, purchasing the tickets on my personal credit card. I submitted the actual tickets themselves on my return. It was, I recall $1,200 and hey, the price was on the ticket, so no argument there, surely?

I got my monthly expenses cheque. They’d reimbursed me only $400 of the $1,200. I went to see the numbers guy. I had the tickets attached to the sheet. “Look,” I said, “that’s exactly what I paid.” He gave me a stare one might give to a prodigal son who’s just spent his inheritance, and said: “But those prices are ridiculous. I simply refuse to pay them.” My jaw dropped. American plane journeys are notoriously expensive when bought at short notice, but, hello…they’d asked me to go, and I had actually paid out the money.

Mr. Accountant argued that I should have taken my rental car and gone by road. It’s about 460 miles and they wanted me there three hours later? Surely he could do the maths? Eventually, reluctantly, as though it was his own money, he agreed I could get the rest of it reimbursed. But I emerged sweating and swearing.

The expenses sheets are a nightmare pen-and-paper torture chamber involving memory, creativity and enough moral conundrums to have a panel of intellectuals arguing.

A colleague once spent two weeks in France and Italy, a non-stop journey of trains, planes and automobiles. He grabbed receipts where he could – frequently blank. On his return and in a daze of exhaustion he filled out about 14 pages of expenses and submitted them.

Mr. Numbers called him in and peered over the rims of his half-moon spectacles. “I suggest,” he said, “that you go back and do them again. They are unsatisfactory and I refuse to sign them.” Malcolm was high on fatigue and caffeine. He bluntly refused. Mr. N persisted with a note of urgency in his voice.

Malcolm still refused. Eventually Mr. N got up from his desk and hurled the offending sheets at Malcolm.

“For your own sake bugger off – and do them again.” And slammed his office door in Malcolm’s face. When Malcolm got back to his desk and examined the offending sheets he realised to his horror that every single receipt he’d submitted was – blank. He’d forgotten to even pretend they were genuine. The apparently hard-hearted accountant had actually saved my colleague’s job by giving the sheets back for – well, some creative work.

Sometimes the system can work in your favour, as when you exchange Sterling for a strange non-convertible currency. The official Gluk-£ exchange rate is 3 to the £, but on the mean streets of the Eastern European capital it’s more like 50 to the £. Mr. Accountant has usually never been further than Majorca, so you make a nice little killing.

But mostly expense sheets are a brain-numbing exercise trying to match expenditure to days and receipts. I’ve known people give up and just swallow the loss rather than ruin their days off with the tedious exercise.

But to inspire us there are always the Hemingways of the business. My prize for sheer brass nerve goes to the WW2 American newspaper correspondent covering the Pacific War. One month he put in almost five hundred dollars claims for taxi fares, including dated receipts. His office in New York politely pointed out he’d been based on an aircraft carrier off Okinawa for the last four weeks. The correspondent famously messaged back in terse cablese: “It very large aircraft carrier.”

To contact Stuart White email stuartwhite383@btinternet.com

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