Jennette Ballas and Aliza Elbert

Dilemma: A friend of mine has access to her company card when permission is granted from a superior. Last week I met her during her lunch break and she used it to buy our tri-tip sandwiches and fries. I didn’t refuse the offer, however, I wanted to know what kind of purchases are okay to make with a company card? – Chloe

According to Wayne G. Bogosian, “Using the company credit card is equivalent to dating the boss’s daughter-You’d better know what you’re doing and not get out of line. Why? Because everything you do will be known and scrutinized. If you mess up, you will lose your job.”

Does everybody do it? In a survey conducted by Fast Company, participants answered whether or not they had ever put a personal cost on their expense report or company credit card. The results: 19 percent confessed they had, while 81 percent pleaded not guilty. One participant’s logic was “I do so much for the company that they never notice. They owe me these little things…Gotta take the little stuff just for the satisfaction.”

Now we’re not going to tell you it’s ok to purchase a Louis Vuitton computer case with the company card then turn around and say it’s not ok to buy an iPod nano that you “need” in order to work efficiently. Different company policies call for different guidance in making the right decision when considering a “need” vs. “excess” cost from a company’s checkbook.

Prior to taking our advice, determine if the situation you are up against is really an ethical problem. If the company explicitly lays out what can and can’t be purchased, then there are no gray areas. It simply comes down to following or breaking company rules. However, if your situation is an ethical problem, then the following questions may help clarify your predicament and how to approach a possible solution.

First off, before purchasing a questionable item with the company card, ask yourself: What is my immediate feeling about this? (I know my gut feeling tends to be accurate when answering multiple-choice questions on tests!) How would others perceive this action? What would my action be if my teammates, peers, supervisor, or Grandma Gertrude were present? And finally, are there legal implications by making this purchase?

Secondly, review the company’s guidelines and policies that may apply to your specific situation. For instance, try using the Corporate Credit Card Policy as a reference. If you aren’t finding what you need, don’t hesitate to ask your co-workers or management’s opinion. Management’s views of what should and shouldn’t be purchased with company funds are going to be your most applicable resource because they will be the first to judge if they don’t approve of your purchase. In the situation where you may be uncomfortable with asking for management’s help, refer to the next level of management or seek expert assistance for guidance.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you think you can get away with making personal purchases on your company card, our guess is that you will become the object of suspicion.

Aliza Elbert and Jennette Ballas are both marketing concentrations with a knack for changing the world-one ethical dilemma at a time. This article is written on behalf of SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) with a goal of teaching others about business ethics.

Do you have an ethical dilemma that you are dying to have answered by our very own expertise? Excellent! Email us at sifeteam@calpoly.edu.

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