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Reimbursing Employee Meals?

Reimbursing Employee Meals?

Alison Green | Ask A Manager

April 01, 2010

A reader writes:

Our office has a number of staff that travel to our various satellite offices – most of the travel is same day (home to office back to home)(no overnight stays). There are a few staff members that feel like they need to be reimbursed for breakfast and lunch and sometimes even dinner (if they leave after 5pm) from these satellite offices. Our accounting department has asked me to create a policy for same day travel prohibiting reimbursement for food. Can we do this? (Or, really, should we do this?)

Can you do it, legally? Yes, absolutely. Should you do it? Well, maybe it’s because I’m from the non-profit world, but I agree that, at least at first glance, asking for meal reimbursement without overnight travel might be excessive. But let’s look at it more closely.

Is there some reason why a local journey that doesn’t involve overnight travel is sticking them with higher meal costs than they would have had if they spent the day in the office? Maybe there is — maybe, for instance, they’re traveling to locations that make it impossible for them to stick to their usual lunch routines, whether that’s brown-bagging it or grabbing something cheap outside the office. And if there is, you should consider that; you don’t want to financially penalize people for doing their jobs.

Or maybe these day trips have them on the road from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. If the hours are unusually long during these day trips, then I’d recommend reimbursing them in recognition of the hardship and quality of life imposition.

So the first question is: Would a reasonable person expect to be reimbursed in this situation, or are these employees trying to take advantage of the company?

And even if a reasonable person wouldn’t expect it, you might also ask: Do you have the luxury of doing this as a perk for your employees anyway? If the company is flush, you may choose to treat employees extra-well in ways like this — because doing so can help with morale, retention, and even recruitment. You want to be able to attract and keep the best people out there, and perks don’t hurt. On the other hand, you may not be flush, or you may be a non-profit, where you generally don’t want to spend donors’ money on luxury-type perks.

So I’d think about all of these things before deciding this. And ideally, the decision wouldn’t be made by the accounting department, but by someone who’s charged with thinking strategically about employee relations.

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