Last week, when a pollster asked British people what they thought of their prime minister, Boris Johnson, they rushed to use words such as “liar”, “untrustworthy”, and “dishonest”.
This is understandable. Johnson is the first serving UK prime minister to be punished for breaking the law — for attending a surprise Downing Street birthday party during a Covid lockdown. He is also fighting charges he knowingly misled parliament about such events.
Yet when it comes to honesty at work, he is not entirely alone.
When other pollsters have asked British workers if they have ever committed a dishonest act on the job, a non-trivial number say they have, not least when it comes to their expenses.
As it happens, Johnson’s partygate predicament has come as a new round of expenses have made headlines. A soldier, a chief executive and a group of bankers figure in cases I’ve noticed in the past few weeks alone. There have doubtless been many more that I missed.
Obviously, none of this remotely excuses Johnson who, apart from anything else, broke rules that his own government made.
Yet each time I see a new report on suspect expense claims, I am reminded of a piece of corporate wisdom an executive passed on to me many years ago. If a company wants to fire someone, the easiest way to do it is to go through their expenses, because the chance of finding something technically sackable is so high.
This gels with surveys done over the years for Webexpenses, a UK-headquartered software company.
One 2016 poll found 20 per cent of British employees admitted to exaggerating their expense claims, while 29 per cent thought it normal to be dishonest at work.
The top reasons fiddlers cited for cheating were: making up for a low wage, their employer could afford it, and everyone else was doing it.
Another survey by the same company found expense cheats over-claimed an average of £451 a year; men cheated more than women and nearly a third did not feel guilty because they felt they deserved it.
The British were not unique. Researchers found workers from North America, Australia and New Zealand were also prone to swindling.
Among the deceit revealed, one Australian admitted to claiming for condoms and another to having their nails done. An American claimed for tickets to a Chicago Cubs baseball game, taking a brother instead of a client, while a compatriot went to Nashville for a concert and claimed it as a business trip. But one type of expense fraud outshone all the others: mileage.
Exaggerating road travel distances was so widespread that people scarcely seemed to deem it fraud. “While around half of the respondents have submitted false mileage reports, only one in 10 admit to committing fraud,” one survey found.
The pandemic may have changed things, says Adam Reynolds, Webexpenses’ chief executive.
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For one thing, there was a lot more business travel before Covid struck, so mileage fraud was easier to accomplish. “People would round up or add on elements to their journey so they could just get a little bit more back,” he told me last week.
In many organisations, the pandemic also ushered in more digital systems, including the software Reynolds sells for handling expenses. He says this has made it harder to falsify mileage claims. That sounded to me like something that someone who sells software expenses would say.
But he argues that digital systems use algorithms to flag anomalous mileage claims that a human manager manually signing off an expense report might miss.
An employee who has to include postcodes for the start and end of a journey in a digital system linked to Google Maps might also find, for instance, that their claim is flagged up if it does not match the distance shown on an online map.
This makes sense, but I doubt it will completely eradicate a problem with such remarkable staying power. As Reynolds says: “People will try to claim anything.”
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