Life At AOL – The Expenses War

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I’ve said this before, but working at AOL is my first experience working at a “big” company. I’ve watched, mostly with amusement, as a Dilbert cartoon has come to life around me. Some of the policies and bureaucracy are useful (I’ll think of some examples, just give me a second).

Some are hilarious (forced drinking events). Some are really annoying. For example, every couple of weeks I get an email titled “AOL Standards of Business Conduct Training” with the demand “As a new employee, you are required to complete one hour of web-based training on the Standards of Business Conduct (SBCs).” The only problem is that I need to have access to the AOL network to complete the training, and they’ve never given me access so that there’s an information barrier between me and the company.

But there’s one weird policy that really stands out. AOL is absolutely crazed about questioning employee expenses. Our CEO Heather Harde deals with the brunt of the pain involved in getting expenses approved. But I’ve dealt with my fair share, too.

Last night, for example, I was cleaning up my desk. I have an envelope I keep business expenses in. There was a hotel bill for a trip when my AOL issued credit card was turned off for the day. Some taxi expenses and a restaurant bill. I looked at them, thought about the process for turning those expenses in and then having to defend them via a phone call (Heather would probably save me from this, but there goes an hour of her time). So I did the rational thing. I shredded those receipts – around $1,500 – because it wasn’t worth the pain.

Part of this process – at least at one point if not now – was referral of expense reports out to a third party firm who would assign you a “case number” and ask you to do things like send actual boarding passes to them to defend flight expenses. Sometimes we can’t get our writers to take business trips because of how difficult it is to be reimbursed for expenses.

Then today I was talking to someone at AOL about nothing in particular, and he brought up his own troubles with expense reimbursement. I asked why the company is so crazed about it.

Enter Gregory Horton. This guy was head of HR at AOL a decade ago when the company was still part of Time Warner. His story is amazing. He apparently set up a dummy consulting corporation and was billing AOL $100,000 a month for made up work. All in all, the company lost over a million dollars to Horton, or so the story goes.

Because of Horton, AOL has for nearly a decade had draconian expense reimbursement policies.

This is one of those points of friction in a company that should be stamped out. Find and prosecute the Hortons of the world. But give your loyal employees a break. Don’t make them feel like criminals for trying to get legitimate expenses approved and paid in a timely manner. In the end, this is just a self-imposed competitive disadvantage against nimbler companies.