I work for a company in a city near Chicago, and like many of my fellow employees, I often am sent to Chicago to work there for the day. We always get overtime on these assignments, and the company gives us seventy dollars in cash, as an “advance against expenses,” to cover transportation and lunch. When I started on the job a few months ago, the supervisor said unused expense money “is supposed to be returned,” and I have been giving him back whatever I did not use—usually only about five or ten dollars but sometimes more. Other employees tell me they never return anything.
Now my wife is pregnant with our first baby. Soon she will have to quit working. When the baby comes, our health insurance will leave us with a bill of over eight hundred dollars, and we have almost no savings. My wife thinks I am being too scrupulous about the expense money. She summed it up like this: “The company ought to pay you more than they do, and we need the unused expense money more than they do.” Would it be all right to keep it? If so, I could cut back on expenses by taking along something to snack on instead of buying lunch, and be at least twenty dollars to the good every day I spend in Chicago.
This question calls for application of norms regarding lying, theft, the use of resources provided by an employer, and payment of income taxes. Keeping unused expense money perhaps requires lying, and lying is always wrong. If no lying is required, the company’s real policy, which perhaps differs from its stated policy, should be ascertained. If the real policy is that unused expense money is to be returned, it almost certainly should be. Occasionally, an unjustly treated employee or a needy one could be justified in keeping it, but the temptation to rationalize theft should be clarified and excluded. Money for expenses also should be used for that purpose insofar as that is likely to contribute to the quantity or quality of an employee’s work. If any unused expense money is retained, this income probably is subject to taxation.
Many employees whose consciences have been dulled by practices of petty fraud that employers cannot easily prevent would never even think about the question you raise. You have retained your moral sensitivity despite your need for money. Still, the outlook of all too many employees is detectable in the fact that you only thought of economizing on your expenses when it occurred to you to keep some of the money. Even if employees cannot rightly keep expense money for themselves, they ought to economize when they reasonably can for the common good of the business, all of whose participants should work together to achieve its purposes efficiently and fairly share the burdens and benefits of doing so.
Many employers provide a fixed sum for meals and/or lodging with the understanding that the employee is responsible for excess expenditures but may retain anything saved by economizing. If your employer provided a certain part of the expense money on that basis to be used for lunch, your proposal to economize by carrying food to snack on would be morally acceptable provided the diet was adequate, so that your work did not suffer. Apparently, though, your employer has not done that, for otherwise company policy would be clear.
Perhaps it would be impossible to keep any unused expense money without lying—for instance, if the company requires you to account for the use of money not returned or to assert in a general statement that such money was used for the designated expenses. Perhaps the company intends to allow a certain amount toward lunch, regardless of its actual cost, but requires an account or statement regarding the remainder. In any case, since lying is always wrong, you certainly may not keep any unused expense money unless you can do so without lying. Therefore, in what follows I shall assume that lying is excluded.
Supposing, then, that you can keep all or some unused money without lying, the lack of any requirement to say what was done with it strongly suggests that management does not seriously expect any money to be returned. Yet even if management does not expect that, it still may be the real policy that it should be, while the supervisor tolerates violations to avoid various consequences of enforcing it, such as unpleasant confrontations and employee unrest. In that case, you receive the money in trust to pay expenses, and you almost certainly ought to return what you do not use. Moreover, even if the policy is not being enforced, adhering to it might well be in your own long-term interest since, other things being equal, a trustworthy employee is more likely than those who cheat their employer to be retained and promoted.
Still, the supervisor’s statement that unused money “is supposed to be returned” may have expressed a policy no longer in force—one replaced in practice by a tacit understanding that employees can keep unused expense money. If such a policy change really has occurred, you may be able to find that out by discussing the history of the policy and its application with your supervisor. If you asked him directly, “What is the company’s current, real policy on returning unused expense money?” he probably would simply repeat that it is supposed to be returned, and your question might even provoke a tightening of existing practice. But if you take a less direct approach, such as casually mentioning that practices at this company in regard to expense money seem quite different from elsewhere, the conversation might be more illuminating. Talking further with other employees also might help.
If you become morally certain that the policy really has changed, you can rightly take advantage of the company’s real present policy. But if the actual policy differs from a tolerated practice, some or all of the employees taking advantage of the latter may falsely signify that they are adhering to the former, yet think they are not being dishonest because the supervisor knows what they are doing and cannot be deceived about it. Still, if deceptive conduct or false statements are necessary, they are dishonest, for even if the supervisor knows they are deceptive or false and not intended to deceive him or her, they are untruthful and are meant to deceive whoever must be deceived for the whole arrangement to work—for example, higher management, auditors, and/or tax collectors.
Also, expense money should be used for the specified purpose insofar as that is likely to contribute to the quantity or quality of an employee’s work. For instance, even if an employer permits employees to keep unused expense money, it would be wrong for an employee to waste time on the job by taking a bus instead of a taxi in order to save money and increase the amount he or she retains. On the same basis, even if no other consideration precludes your keeping all or some of the unused expense money, you should not cut back on expenses by not buying lunch if that would detract from your work, for example, by reducing your energy or alertness.
Occasionally employees have no feasible way of collecting what their employer certainly owes them except by taking it, and occasionally employees cannot meet some urgent need except by taking what belongs to an employer who can well afford its loss. In such cases, the taking can be just (see LCL, 825). But employees who have an opportunity to steal—for example, by cheating on expenses—often turn these justifications into rationalizations by extending them to situations in which their strict conditions are not met. Consider conscientiously whether either of those justifications is operative in your situation. If not, do not let them, or vague thoughts akin to them, confuse your thinking.
Finally, any expense money you keep will be income to you, and it probably will be taxable. If you judge that you may keep any, you should pay whatever taxes may be due on it.