should a resigning employee have to reimburse us for costs of a future conference he signed up for?

A reader writes:

I manage a small software development team in a larger company. We have a modest conference allowance for each person in our department, usable by each employee in whichever way they see fit (with veto input from me, their manager. We don’t want to pay for them to go to surfing conference in Hawaii, as nice as that would be). There is no official policy that surrounds this but it works pretty well in practice.

This is positioned as a perk to encourage programmers to learn more about our language and framework or go to something new and report back, and also as recruiting. A few months ago, a programmer signed up for a conference that takes place a few months from now, in another state that would require airfare and hotel, and booked it under his name, as you would expect.

He just submitted his two week notice.

My boss, the director, wants him to reimburse us for the cost of the plane ticket, conference ticket, and pre-paid hotel, as all are non-transferrable. The programmer has refused, as he signed up for the conference in good faith, and would be happy to transfer the conference ticket and pre-paid hotel reservation back to the organization and let us deal with it (since they’re non transferrable though, we can’t really do anything with them). The plane ticket can only be partially refunded, due to change fees and the like.

I’m stuck in the middle. We don’t have an explicit policy that states the programmer would have to repay this debt, but my boss is putting a lot of pressure on me to get the money from the outgoing employee. What should I do? What is common in this situation? It feels like we should just chalk this up as a cost of doing business without a policy, but I don’t have any experience in this situation to know for sure.

(A follow up question just for my education: how would this change if he were being fired instead?)

Yep, you’re right and your boss is wrong. This is a cost of doing business. What if the employee had, say, bought a one-year subscription to a business journal to help him do his job better? Would your boss want him to pay for the months remaining on the subscription?

Point out to your boss that what he’s proposing would discourage people from ever signing up for anything more than a month or so out, because they won’t want to be on the hook for the cost in case their circumstances change. Also point out that this is a normal cost of doing business that he’s attempting to shift to employees, and that doing that will be really bad for employee relations and people’s morale.

Sometimes stuff happens that isn’t ideal. There are plenty of costs linked to employee decisions that employers don’t like (like the costs of preparing for a new employee who backs out of the job two days before starting, or having to pay unemployment benefits for a fired employee who put in no effort), but they’re still normal costs of doing business.

As for the question you asked about whether this would change if the guy had been fired: All this would be doubly true then (because it would be really reprehensible to expect someone leaving involuntarily to pay fees for doing his job), but the fact that it’s his choice to leave doesn’t mean that he should shoulder the business’s expenses.

Your company offered this benefit, and the employee acted on it in good faith. Now the company needs to act in good faith too.

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