Apr 28 2022

Open Expense Policy

I wrote a post the other day about innovating employee benefits practices, and I realized I’d never documented a couple other ways in which we have always tried to innovate People practices. Here’s one of them: the Open Expense Policy, which I wrote about in the second edition of Startup CEO in a new chapter on Authentic Leadership when talking about the problem of the “Say-Do” gap.  Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll give you an example that just drove me nuts early in my career here, though there are others in the book.  I worked for a company that had an expense policy – one of those old school policies that included things like “you can spend up to $10 on a taxi home if you work past 8 pm unless it’s summer when it’s still light out at 8 pm” (or something like that).  Anyway, the policy stipulated a max an employee could spend on a hotel for a business trip, but the CEO  (who was an employee) didn’t follow that policy 100% of the time.  When called out on it, did the CEO apologize and say they would follow the policy just like everyone else? No, the CEO changed the policy in the employee handbook so that it read “blah blah blah, other than the CEO, President, or CFO, who may spend a higher dollar amount at his discretion.”

When we started Return Path, we had a similar policy. It was standard issue. But then over time as our culture became stronger and our People First philosophy and approach became something we evangelized more, we realized that traditional expense was at odds with our deeply held value of trusting employees to make good decisions and giving them the freedom and flexibility they needed to do their best work.

So we blew up the traditional policy and replaced it with a very simple one — “use your best judgment on expenses and try to spend the company’s money like it’s your own.” That policy is still in place today for our team at Bolster. We do have people sign off on expense requests that come in through the Expensify system, mostly because we have to, but unless there is something extremely profligate, no one really says a word.

Similar to what happened when we switched to an Open Vacation policy, we had some concerns from managers about employees abusing the new un-policy, so we had to assure them we’d have their back. But do you know what happened when we implemented the new policy? We got a bunch of emails from team members thanking us for trusting them with the company’s money. And the average amount of expenses per employees went down. That’s right, down. Trusting people to exercise good judgment and spend the company’s money as if it was their own drove people to think critically about expenses as opposed to “spend to the limit.”

I don’t think in 15+ years of operating with an Open Expense policy that any of us have had to call out an employee’s expenses as being too high more than once or twice. That’s what the essence of employee trust is about. Manage exceptions on the back end, don’t attempt to control or micromanage behavior on the front end.