Q: I have a new co-worker who works for a part of our organization that has an entertainment account for taking prospective donors out to lunch. We have been working together on a project and seemed to enjoy each other’s company, so we decided to get lunch. When the bill came, she said she forgot to bring a form of payment, so I paid for both of our lunches. She did not pay me back.
When we went to lunch a second time, she paid using the company card. I’m guessing that in her mind, she thinks that this is a fair exchange, but I can’t help feeling that she should still reimburse me and that it also it feels unethical that she paid with company funds that are intended to be spent on clients outside the organization.
I like her, but something about this doesn’t feel right, and it’s affecting my opinion of her to the point where I’m not sure I want to be friends after all. Do I bring this up? If so, how?
A: You paid for a meal you did not eat, and then you ate a meal you did not have to pay for — so things between you and your co-worker are currently square, if uncomfortable.
Regarding your second point, responsible adults pay off their personal obligations with their own money; when they do so with funds that their employer has earmarked for other purposes, it’s called embezzlement. And even though she’s the one holding the card, you could be on the hook, too, as a witting beneficiary of her actions.
Granted, she may not be fully aware of what she’s done, especially if she’s new in her career or wasn’t properly counseled on appropriate use of her card. You can give her an opportunity to clear things up by asking, “Hey, about our lunch the other day — are you sure it was OK to put it on the company card? I thought those funds were just for entertaining outside clients. They can be strict about expenses here, so I want to make sure you’re not going to get in trouble.”
If she has more flexibility in using the card than you’re aware, or if your lunch was somehow preapproved, she can explain that. If she didn’t realize what she did was wrong, she can explain to your employer that she mistakenly charged a personal expense (it happens), and reimburse them. Either way, she should understand and appreciate your looking out for her.
If she dismisses your concern, grows defensive or gives an excuse that you don’t trust is accurate, you may want to investigate how to protect yourself from potential repercussions, starting with the employee handbook. Some larger companies have hotlines where you can raise ethics concerns anonymously and receive guidance on how to proceed.
Or you can do nothing, and pray nothing comes to light. But whatever action you do or don’t take, you should listen to that warning bell in your head until you have a better sense of her character and whether you can trust her.
If you enjoy her company enough to continue socializing, nail down payment details in advance: “Lunch? Sounds good, but do you mind if we get separate checks this time to keep things simple?” (I hope there’s no need to consider this, but separate checks are also easier to account for later if you need receipts.)
One last thought: It’s possible that shame over a lack of money and the desire to cover for it are behind her ethical lapse — not an excuse, but an understandable impulse. If you think that’s the case, you can sustain a friendship just as easily brown-bagging it at a local park as you can at a trendy-spendy salad assembly line.