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Buying on the Boss' Tab

When it comes to company credit cards, abuses are legendary (and we're all ears).

For businesses where employees are required to travel, expenses are notoriously hard to keep straight. Companies can either reimburse employees for expenses after the fact or let them use business credit cards (which are like the ho-hum plastic -- including credit limits and interest rates -- all of us use) or corporate charge cards (which come with an annual or monthly fee, do not accrue interest, and are paid in full monthly).

In either case, abuse can occur. So what's a boss to do? Here are a few suggestions:

Vow to check: Scouring receipts and comparing them with credit card bills is a drag -- not only to the person whose job it is, but also on a business's bottom line. Weigh the costs of accounting labor against the price of dishonesty. If you haven't had problems in the past, then you may be able to get by with just one person signing off on expenses. However, recognize that some items may simply be overlooked.

Set deadlines: Require all employees who use the company card to turn in their receipts by a specific date. Too often, latecomers are given less scrutiny than those who turn in their expense reports early.

Put the rules on paper: Include company guidelines in the employee handbook. And make sure the rules are detailed (e.g., meals and most beverages are allowable, but alcohol is not).

Give abusers a heads up: The company credit card rules should also include what happens to abusers. Depending on the seriousness of the slip-up, this could be anything from a wrist slap to termination.

Apply electronic safeguards: Many corporate cards have single-purchase limits, for example, allowing less than $1,000 in purchases made online. Cards also have filters -- merchant codes that prevent charges at certain retail establishments such as salons, drugstores, or clothing stores. When an employee tries to put a pedicure or Prozac on company plastic, the card will automatically be declined.

If you're an employee entrusted with the company card, consider the following:

Get organized: It doesn't take much to generate a mountain of receipts. Keep close tabs on your spending, especially if you're using your own credit card or cash. (You want to get paid back, right?) If you get a generic receipt from a street vendor or corner deli, write on the receipt exactly what you purchased. Better yet, keep your work-related expenses in a separate envelope.

Keep an eye on your boss: If you're being asked to cover unreasonable expenses or are not being reimbursed in a timely manner, take it up with your human resources department.

Watch your wallet: Not all company credit card abuses are the fault of an unscrupulous employee. Unintentional abuse is easy. After all, it's just another piece of plastic in the wallet, and when you're fumbling for your card at the grocery store, mistakes can occur.

Get perks: Many company credit cards come with perks that should sound familiar: miles, rebates, teaser rates, free balance transfers. Consult your employee handbook or your boss to see if you are allowed to keep the spoils of your spending. If not, and you are a diligent, on-time, paid-in-full kinda person, consider putting work purchases on your card to earn extra points or cash back.

Be prepared to let it all hang out: If you've had trouble with the plastic police in the past, the boss will find out. If your company chooses a credit card (as opposed to a charge card), each person given access will be subject to a credit check. Here are some tips on performing credit-report triage before the boss man raises his eyebrows.

Do the crime? Better pay on time: Employees who put unauthorized charges on the company card may find themselves facing job loss, and worse. If you can't pay the tab, your company can treat the purchases as extra wages, and you will be taxed on them.


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