Communication strategies to control travel policy violations

So you have a few problem employees, who (no matter how many times you remind them before their business trips) frequently violate company travel policy. They are starting to run out of chances before other parties or management get involved. As a corporate travel manager, you want to avoid that next level of action, if possible. But what do you do? You have already made sure those employees have been given copies of the travel policy before every business trip, yet they still book flights or hotels not covered by the company policy. Or they consistently include duplicate taxi fares when it’s fairly clear that the distance traveled is not the same.

Sound like one of your employees? Well, you’re not the only travel manager to experience this problem. Making sure that all employees follow corporate travel policy is vital to ensure the company is not wasting money after carefully negotiating prices with airlines, hotels, and other corporate travel vendors. Those few frequent travel policy violators could potentially cost your company thousands of dollars.

Granted, some employees book out of policy because they truly believe they are saving the company money. However, they might not know about the special deals you have worked out, so it’s time to figure out how to better communicate with employees.

Who are Frequent Travel Policy Violators?

Frequent travel policy violations happen every day and come in different varieties: usually by accident, necessity, or fraud. Most of the time it’s by accident, when an employee simply didn’t know he was violating travel policy and booked a flight on a non-approved airline, for example. Sometimes it can be out of necessity: an employee waits until the last minute to book her flight and a hotel for a mandatory business trip, and none of the approved airlines or hotels have availability. And then there are those employees who are repeat offenders. They consistently violate company travel policy despite being asked several times to be more vigilant.

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The good news is that frequent travel policy violators tend to be relatively few and far between. According to the Fall 2014 Oversight T&E Spend Analysis Report (PDF), 82% of fraudulent travel expenses at an organization were made by only a small amount of employees: 5%. Out of the 160,000 travelers in Oversight’s analysis, only roughly 10% had multiple violations in their expense reports. Oversight’s analysis also concluded that expenses typically coordinated through travel management companies (TMCs)—airfare, lodging, and car rentals—are usually compliant with travel policy. However, the report claims that purchases outside of airfare, lodging, and car rentals are where frequent travel policy violations occur. “Out-of-pocket expenses, travel emergencies, and other items that go on corporate travel cards” are travel purchases that fall outside of TMCs’ responsibilities, as the report notes.

These purchases tend to be in a “grey area” and are not typically well-controlled. There is potential for improvement in this area, and how well travel managers communicate with frequent travel policy violators can help reduce these violations.

Why is it Important to Address Frequent Travel Policy Violators?

Okay, so employees who violate travel policy are only a small fraction of total company employees. So what? Travel managers still have a lot of other responsibilities for policy-abiding employees, right? Absolutely.

However, even though non-compliant or fraudulent travel costs are relatively minor in value and not as common, they can do some damage over time. The Fall 2014 Oversight T&E Spend Analysis Report (PDF) found that “fraudulent and non-compliant spending costs organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.” This report analyzed over $1 billion in travel expenses and found that roughly 5% of those expenses were non-compliant with company travel policy. For a company with $5 million annually in travel spending, that’s $250,000 additional money spent!

If you consider that over 80% of fraudulent travel expenses is made by only 5% of employees, then travel managers can save their companies big money by focusing on only a small percentage of employees. By that rule-of-thumb, a travel manager at a 1,000-employee company could save the company $200,000 by addressing 50 or less non-compliant employees.

Saving company money and using your time wisely? Sounds like a win-win.

Strategies for Travel Managers to Deal with Employees Who Disregard Travel Policies

As business travel managers, you can draw up the best travel policy ever, but you will still always have rule breakers. Whether it’s missing receipts, booking flights on unqualified airlines, going over the per diem, or more, there’s always of lot of “cleanup” for travel managers upon an employee’s return from a business trip. Here are some strategies for helping to reduce the number of frequent travel policy violators. Because we’ve already got you covered on how to write a great travel policy, here, we focus more on the relationship between travel manager and employees.

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Have a Plan

Whether you are a seasoned corporate travel manager or it’s your first day, it’s important to have a pre-determined strategy for approaching frequent travel policy violators. Travel policy violations can happen any time, so you need to be ready. If you delay addressing an employee, then that employee will most likely continue their behavior and cost the company more money. Baird Brightman, a PhD and trained behavioral scientist, notes that it is “valuable to detect problems early and intervene to minimize its harmful impact.” Plus, having a plan in place will make the addressing the issue with the employee less intimidating for you.

How to apply this strategy: Knowing what you will say during your initial meeting with the frequent travel policy violator is important for the meeting to be productive and to get your message across. You also want to make sure that the meeting is not too one-sided. The employee should be given the opportunity to ask questions and voice his or her concerns. However, take care not to allow these concerns to serve as excuses for frequent misbehavior. In addition to your one-on-one meeting, Brightman suggests “the use of behavioral assessments,” which use feedback from everyone who works with the employee. This includes the employee’s direct reports, peers, and supervisors/managers.It’s advisable to have this feedback gathered and organized before your first meeting with the employee. Getting feedback from other colleagues at different levels of seniority will be invaluable for helping you determine a strategy for behavior improvement.

Have a plan in place if the employee’s behavior doesn’t improve. What will you discuss during the next meeting? How many meetings will you have before escalating the violation to upper management? Having a plan and timeline in place will make you more efficient and reduce your headaches.

Identify the Root Problem

Oftentimes, unwarranted or unethical behavior at the office is the result of another issue beneath the surface. Repeated infractions could be your employees’ way of conveying that they are frustrated or don’t agree with a specific policy or direction. For those employees with frequent violations, there may be a specific pattern of behavior causing these over time. Try mapping out those incidents to see if any recurring themes emerge. Does the employee feel that he isn’t getting the feedback he desires? Does he feel that his colleagues are taking all of the credit? Anger is often a surface emotion and misbehavior is often the result. That means there is almost always another problem at the root of it all. Dr. Leon Seltzer, a clinical psychologist, writes from his own experience that “anger is almost never a primary emotion […] there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it.”

For example, one of your employees may become upset that she is not getting the credit she thinks she deserves on work products. This may be because she feels like she is not getting enough praise from her supervisor or manager. As a result, she might try to take more credit on future projects. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown, suggests to “meet with them and ask how they’re doing — at work, at home, and with their career development.” She goes on to recommend offering help, if “there’s a reason for why they’re acting the way they are.”

How to apply this strategy: Don’t forget to give consistent feedback—good or constructive—to your employees. Everyone at the office wants to feel appreciated for their efforts and like they are contributing to the team. When it comes to following travel policy, be sure to give praise to employees whenever they correctly follow your company’s policy. An employee who frequently violates your travel policy may be trying to tell you that he doesn’t agree with one or more parts of the policy. In that case, the only way to know for sure is to ask employees directly to find out the issue. Usually, this is best done with in-person meetings, as emails can tend to get ignored. During these meetings, you can better understand the employee and then give your feedback and offer to help.


Remember to Document Everything

Sometimes, only talking it out doesn’t get the job done. Imagine it: you just had what you thought was a productive meeting with a frequent travel policy violator during which they promised to change their behavior and adhere to the policy more. But a month or two later, you find yourself having similar conversations with the same employee. Obviously, your words didn’t resonate with them the first time. Unless you want to have the same conversation over and over with this employee, consider using other visual methods to get their attention. Talk is cheap, so up your meeting game with some visual aids. In fact, a 1996 U.S. Department of Labor study found that people retain 65% of information presented both orally and visually, versus 35% if presented only visually or 10% if presented only orally.

How to apply this strategy: There is power in seeing things on paper rather than having them as talking points or discussion items. For your first meeting with a frequent travel policy violator, consider listing the employee’s violations for them to see. Depending on how many violations there are, this could really drive home the point that the employee might be walking on thin ice with the corporate travel policy. Showing information such as the dates of the violations, what the violations were, and any monetary penalties the company incurred can really help your case and quickly correct the employee’s behavior. However, be sure to include all documented proof and use an objective tone. This will allow you to present evidence to the employee but also keep the conversation upbeat.

If further action is necessary, the employee’s travel policy violations are all grouped together, making it much more digestible for upper management to review. As Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, puts it: if presented to upper management, “the idea is to protect yourself and the company.” If it’s determined the employee should be dismissed, you’ll want the documentation to clearly show why they’re being let go. If it comes to that, Porath recommends to “establish a pattern of behavior, the steps you took to address it, the information, warnings or resources provided to the employee, and the failure of the employee to change.”

Keep Doing Your Job. Don’t Lose Your Cool.

It can be really frustrating dealing with employees who violate corporate travel policy. It can be even more frustrating when dealing with frequent offenders. Having conversations with them about these issues can be unpleasant and uncomfortable; however, it is very important for you as a travel manager to address the violations as quickly as possible. It can be tempting to keep uncomfortable situations and employees at an arm’s length, but as a manager, it’s your job to ensure compliance. And one of the most effective ways is via a prompt, calm, yet stern response.

How to apply this strategy: It easy to overreact and lose your temper when an employee violates travel policy for the umpteenth time. However, lashing out will not help either you or the employee in the end. Moreover, Porath reminds us to not “spend so much [time] on one individual that your other priorities fall by the wayside.” Even worse, if you do lose your temper, it could possibly be used against you down the road.

The best thing to do? Take a few hours (or days even) to let things cool down. But don’t let it go unaddressed for too long. Once you’re calm, face the situation head on and schedule a meeting with the employee. If you’re having trouble counteracting the negativity, Porath stresses that it’s important to “surround yourself with supportive, positive people.” You get bonus points too if you have the meeting in a neutral location (i.e., conference room). Keep the meeting brief and focused, and don’t be distracted. The bottom line is that you are the manager, and even though addressing frequent travel policy violators can be unpleasant, don’t let those employees stop you from doing your job.

Practice What You Preach

You’ve heard this adage before, but it still holds true. As Monica Patrick of the Houston Chronicle writes, “people don’t receive inspiration from employee manuals or corporate memos.” Patrick goes on to say that good workplace behavior is “best shown, not told.” Be courteous and respectful to all of your colleagues, regardless of hierarchy. Follow all rules of conduct and company policies. If you’re in charge of making sure employees adhere to travel policy, you will be held to that standard as well—if not a higher standard—across all company policies. And actions do speak louder than words. If employees see that you aren’t following company policies, then they are much less likely to change their behavior.

How to apply this strategy: When you behave correctly (not only limited to travel policy), you’re in a much better position to influence other employees’ behavior. You have more social capital with which to work. Follow all company policies (including travel policy); produce timely, quality work; treat others with respect; and show understanding/willingness to work with others. That way, when you have to meet with frequent travel policy violators, your words will carry more weight. Patrick maintains that “natural leaders raise the bar” and are able to keep a positive attitude while dealing with daily challenges.


Rolling with the Punches

As corporate travel managers, you will inevitably encounter employees who violate travel policy. It’s never fun, but the sooner you address and correct this behavior, the more money you will save your company in the long run. Travel policies are created to help companies budget the appropriate amount for business trips, so significant deviations from these policies over time can be costly.

If you’re a new corporate travel manager and/or your company doesn’t currently have a travel policy in place, download our customizable travel policy template. You can also employ these 5 strategies to help boost compliance.

Here at 30SecondsToFly, Claire can help with travel policy compliance and save travel managers from potential headaches dealing with policy violations, too. Claire is an easy-to-use A.I. interface that saves employees time and provides detailed analytics to travel managers, only allowing travel options that follow a company’s travel policy. Try out a demo with our co-founder today!