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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 11:01 GMT
The ethics of air miles
Plane landing

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The speaker of the House of Commons has been accused of using his air miles for his family, but this is a dilemma many of us face daily: is it fair to use corporate perks in our personal lives?

OK, so here's a situation. You work for Company X and during the course of your work you have to stay in hotels.

Every time you stay in a hotel you clock up Frequent Sleeper Vouchers, part of an incentive scheme to get you to stay in a particular chain. There are no rules at your company about the use of these vouchers, but you have a sneaking suspicion that your bosses would be less than delighted about you using them for anything other than work.

Also known as frequent flyer miles
Invented in early 1980s
Incentive scheme for regular travellers
Also accrued by other purchases
Common credit card incentive
The Economist estimated $700bn unused miles by 2005

You quite fancy a trip away with your wife. But would you use the vouchers yourself, and if not why not? And would the situation change if Company X could not make use of them, perhaps because they would expire at the end of the month?

The allegations against the speaker Michael Martin are something different again, but they have cast light on what is apparently a burning issue in the world of business ethics.

"It comes up in business ethics quite a lot," says Simon Webley, research director at the Institute of Business Ethics. "A good many companies tell their staff they may use air miles. But you don't assume you can."

But it's not just air miles. For many workers, there is also the issue of company cars, company laptops, making personal calls at the office, certain uses of expense accounts, and general borrowing of company equipment for a personal use.

Code of conduct

Most of us would agree that if our contracts, which we had freely entered into, forbade a particular perk then we would be regarded as unethical if we still went ahead and took it.

The institute would suggest to companies that in their code of ethics or code of conduct an employer should have specific rules for use of company "perks" in order to avoid confusion. But in the absence of rules?

"The onus is on the company to set out rules. But I think you should ask if you are going to use company assets for a personal use," says Mr Webley.

Certain perks, like using the office printer, may be allowed

At the University of Aberdeen Business School, Dr David Molyneaux said the allegations made against the speaker had stimulated debate among his students.

"My sense is air miles should generally be used to reduce the cost of a subsequent trip in the line of business or activity in which the individual is."

The alternative is the possibility that someone could be accused of doing something for improper reasons, says Dr Molyneaux, treasurer of the European Business Ethics Network-UK.

"You could end up that someone goes for a more expensive carrier simply to get the air miles simply to suit them."

For philosopher Alex Voorhoeve there is not just the question of obeying the rules but also being seen to obey the rules, whether it's perks or gifts.

"In my line of work students sometimes give you gifts. There is a clear rule that you shouldn't be paid except by the university, but if a nice bottle of vodka comes from a Russian student does that constitute payment?

If you are not embarrassed write a thank you letter to be put on public display in the glass atrium of your office
Dr David Molyneaux
Business ethicist

"It should be fine unless it would in some sense corrupt your judgement or give the appearance of corrupting your judgement."

This can lead to a situation in business or elsewhere where an individual might want to turn down perks even if it was acceptable to take them.

"If you want to avoid even the appearance of being distracted you might want to turn down perks," says Dr Voorhoeve.

But for many of us, taking perks, even those we are not strictly entitled to, is a method of rectifying a work situation we see as unfair, says workplace sociologist Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University. For some people, there might be the tolerated taking of sick days when only low levels of paid leave are allowed, for others the liberal use of expense accounts when a low bonus is paid.

"People don't feel properly recognised by their workplace, when they are given perks... they think this is psychological recognition for the long hours of work they do and the efforts they put in."

There are people who feel they are unfairly rewarded or recognised for what they do.

Psychological recompense

"For them it isn't money, it's the value that they have to the organisation on the basis of the perk," says Prof Cooper.

"People feel they are not being recognised, feel they are not paid properly... the organisation or society should be rewarding this position much higher than it does. It is a form of psychological recompense, doing what I do should be compensated at this level."

And the answer?

"If employers and managers treated people properly, valued them by rewarding and praising we would get fewer people maximising their perks," says Prof Cooper.

There is also a legal aspect to the perks dilemma. Under British law at least, most perks are taxable with the employer usually responsible for reporting them to HM Revenue and Customs at the end of the year.

Whatever the sociological reasons for perk maximisation, it will continue to be a daily ethical dilemma for millions of workers across the country. And for the ethicists, it's clear that it isn't just a question of the letter of the law, but also of how we are viewed within an organisation and our duty to set an example.

"The test is would you be embarrassed if everyone else knew you had done it," says Dr Molyneaux.

"It's quite a good rule of thumb. If you are not embarrassed write a thank you letter to be put on public display in the glass atrium of your office. That is quite a good test."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Different companies set different standards. Generally speaking, my employer will only re-emburse expenses incurred via Corporate Credit Card. Flights, hire cars, hotels etc have to be booked via corporate travel tools. I can use air miles etc I accrue (because there is no potential conflict of interest) and in all cases "the line" is very clearly laid out for me. I'm quite glad of this because for me, some of the examples given here where people think they are acting ethically are in some cases clearly dodgy.
David, Columbia City, OR, USA

The easiest way to remove any question of ethical behavior when planning trips or utilizing points would be to legislatively remove via the rule of law the ability of service corporations (airlines, hotel chains, petrol companies) to offer these programs to corporate or government customers when purchasing these services. It may even reduce the service providing companies' marketing budgets which could return the savings to all customers in lower ticket, gas, or hotel prices.
Will, Beaufort, SC, USA

Almost all business air-travel I've done has meant a sacrifice of personal time; e.g. spending Sunday travelling to America for meetings starting Monday. The accumulated air miles are a minor compensation for inconvenience, discomfort, jet lagged tiredness and loss of time with family.
Sean Haffey, Hook, Hants

If my company wants my airmiles, that's perfectly fine by me. However, in return I would then expect to do all my travel during the times they pay me, ie. between the hours of 9 and 5.30.
Ian, Milton Keynes, UK

The explanation given here for how people feel they are entitled to perks is almost exactly the same as the guidelines accountants are taught as a means of identifying fraud. Justification is always a key part of taking anything from an organisation. I agree that the hours people are expected to spend travelling these days are often unreasonable, but unless the business gives permission for air miles to be used personally, taking them is essentially fraud.
Anna, New York

Air miles were invented to tempt employees to choose one airline over another in order to divert part of this company expense into their own pockets. It's an example of the problem of separation of ownership and control of a company. The shareholders (who own the company) would only approve of them paying over the odds for travel if there were compensating benefits - like increased morale and productivity.

So the question is, even if people are knowingly paying more than they could (whether or not they feel guilty about it) does this little perk motivate them to work harder, longer and more productively than they would have otherwise? It seems from comments on this article that the answer is yes and we can assume the company owners would be OK with it on that basis.
Rob, Glasgow

I have no problem using air miles gained on business travel for personal use. The amount of hours I spend in the air that are outside my contracted working hours is extreme. It's not a perk as anyone who does regular business travel will tell you. MP, banker, salesman they are all jobs and should be treated the same.
Andrew, London

Where does it all stop though? Add a few miles to a travel claim. Drink to oblivion and claim on expenses. Private calls at work expense. Steal a bit of stationery. Very dubious territory and symptomatic of a corrupt business environment. In my company such activity means the sack with no appeal.
David Procter, Peterborough

Salary, conditions, perks, it's all part of the package. Unless there are company rules stating otherwise, and so long as it can't be seen as some form of corruption, then there's no problem. Seems some are only happy if all the good parts of a job have been removed, just in case staff morale reaches adequate levels.
Gaz, Herts

There is a rule that members of the British Armed Forces, who collect air miles on trips that are government funded are NOT allowed to use those miles for personal gain, they can however use the benefits that miles can bring, such as lounges etc. It is nice to see that these rules do not apply to MPs who also have their air fares paid at government expense. Yet again, one rule for the law abiding citizen, and one for MPs. The military also have to provide receipts for all expenditure and MPs can claim 250 a time with no proof. I wonder who is more trustworthy.....
Rick, Sleaford, UK

For me business travel always involves anti-social working hours, and often encroaches into my weekends / bank holidays. I don't get paid overtime, but don't feel guilty using the air miles for personal reasons due to the unpaid hours spent sitting in random airports waiting for connections.
Eleanor, London

Using frequent sleeper points privately is only unethical if you're choosing that hotel over cheaper alternatives when staying on company business simply to aquire the points. My wife is a rep and earns nectar points every time she fills up her car (she gets mileage allowance so in effect the company are paying for the nectar points). We don't see why we should give the points back to her company.
Peter, Nottingham

It is fine to take the perks so long as you don't spend more than necessary on the goods/service in order to get the perks. You can't NOT have them. But if you, for example, buy petrol for the company mileage at a higher rate just to get (say) the Nectar points, that would be wrong. Seems very obvious to me.
Uncle Marvo, Wellingborough

I don't fly about much because our business is only UK related, but I always pocket my hotel and airline loyalty points. I also refuse to use a corporate credit card (to which I am entitled) because I pocket 1.5% cash back via my own AMEX card. The management don't mind us doing it, indeed I strongly suspect they follow suit. The culture in our office is such that some heavy travellers in our office have accumulated the equivalent of several weeks of free accommodation at 5* hotel chains by frequently staying at their lower budget brands. But when the company makes over $1bn profit a year like ours, should you as a manager really expect your employees to give up these perks?
A, Birmingham

It all seems very clear cut when you're making the decision from an academic perspective. I choose not to use my company's credit card (against policy) because it has a low limit and accrues no loyalty points. I regularly travel (2500/month on business, 3/4 nights a week) and miss my family so I (personally) pay 300pa for an "upmarket" charge card that gets me lounge access at airports, good personal insurance (over the company insurance) and accrues points I can use to spend on my family. Is this wrong? I don't think so.
Stu, Glasgow, UK

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