A reader writes:
My company has an annual meeting where all of our sales staff from across the country come together. People from marketing and a few other departments are also in attendance, as is the entire executive management team. Since people are flying in from across the country anyway, the meeting has typically been held at an all-inclusive resort hotel outside the country (e.g. Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and a couple other spots). The meeting is mandatory.
Plane travel arrangements are handled by our company’s travel coordinator. She books our tickets for us approximately 3-4 months in advance. When she sends us the information regarding our flights, there is always a note in her email stating something to the effect of: “If you resign prior to the trip, you will be responsible for reimbursing the company for the cost of the airline ticket. You will own the ticket and can change the ticket for your personal use. You will need to write a check for the cost of the ticket, or have the amount deducted from your final paycheck.”
I’m going to assume this is legal (since most of the time when people ask you that, your answer seems to be yes). However, I’m wondering if it is common? I have never encountered this at other companies, but in all of my past jobs I rarely traveled for work. Wondering what your thoughts are on this kind of policy, especially since my tickets for the upcoming trip have already been purchased, but I’m in the process of looking for another job.
I’m 99% sure this isn’t legal, actually. (Congratulations! That’s a rare answer around here.) I’m not a lawyer and I wasn’t able to turn up anything on this with a pretty extensive Google search, so I’m just going on semi-informed instinct here, but generally speaking, if you don’t agree to assume an expense that someone else has already paid for, that someone else has no standing to require you to reimburse them.
In other words, your company can’t just announce on their own that you’re responsible for reimbursing them for various employer-paid items if you leave; you’d need to agree to that arrangement, which you haven’t done. (Think, for instance, of programs where an employer pays for college classes but there’s a signed agreement that you’ll reimburse their costs if you leave before a certain amount of time is up. A signed agreement — because otherwise they’d have no standing to enforce it.)
Leaving the questionable legalities aside, no, this isn’t typical. Travel costs for work-related trips are a normal cost of doing business. The employer is requiring the trip, so they assume the risks — the risk that you might not be working there when the trip rolls around, the risk that you might be sick and unable to go, and the risk that the trip might be cancelled entirely for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
There are lots of costs that employers don’t like (for instance, the costs of preparing for a new employee who backs out of the job right 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.
This is also just a crappy thing to do — to require you to attend a work event outside the country and then try to stick you with the cost of an international plane ticket if you end up moving on before then (and not give you an out if you don’t want to agree to those terms).
In any case, I suspect it’s utterly unenforceable anyway, so if I were you, I’d just ignore it. If you happen to leave your job before this trip and they try to deduct the cost of the ticket from your final paycheck, let them know (nicely) that you never agreed to assume that expense and that they’re not authorized to deduct it from your paycheck. A letter from a lawyer could put some teeth behind that, but hopefully they’d be smart enough to consult their own lawyer as soon as you raise the issue. (And that lawyer should set them straight.)