my employer wants me to repay business expenses because I’m resigning

I know we covered a similar topic recently, but this is a whole new and ridiculous twist on it.

A reader writes:

I’m leaving my company after five years. A couple years ago, management instituted a policy requiring employees pay the company back for any professional development (conferences, etc.) that occurs within six months of resignation. My question concerns what means they actually have to collect this. Given the fact that I was sent abroad for several weeks earlier this spring, it’s a pretty substantial sum (~$2,000). Can I just not pay them back?

Here’s the policy for your reference (amended slightly for privacy reasons): “Periodically, employees will visit program site(s) relevant to their advising duties to gain first-hand experience and become better prepared to promote the site(s) to students, parents, and universities. In the event an employee resigns within a designated period of time after the site visit, the employee will be responsible for refunding the cost of the airline ticket. If the flight is purchased on miles, the employee will be required to refund the face value of the same flight in USD. The period of time after the site visit will be determined by the employee’s manager, and will be agreed upon between the manager and employee prior to purchasing the flight. Typically, the length of time is six months, but can vary based on the timing of the visit and/or the employee’s responsibilities resulting from the site visit training incentive. Repayment of the airline ticket cost is due within thirty (30) days of the employee’s effective end date.”

Any insight you might be able to provide about how best to handle this would be greatly appreciated!

This is craziness. This is far crazier than the letter a few months ago about an employer that wanted a resigning employee to reimburse them for the costs of a future conference he had signed up for. That was wrong too, but at least that was partly professional development for the employee’s own sake. In your case, they want you to reimburse them for site visits, which sound like they happen exclusively to help you do your job better — not for more professional development or anything like that. This is like saying “You have to pay back all your meal costs from any client lunches you had as part of your job” or “You need to reimburse us for the cost of providing you with office space.” In other words, you were doing the activity as part of your job; it shouldn’t be something anyone should even think about having you reimburse.

Since the policy says that you and your manager have to agree on what that period of time will be when you book the plane ticket, people should all just refuse to go unless the period of time is zero days, pointing out that no one can predict what the future holds (you could have to resign for health reasons or a family emergency, after all) and that you’re not willing to incur that financial obligation in order to carry out your job responsibilities.

But as for what to do now, assuming it’s too late for that: Unless they have a written agreement with you where you agreed to pay this money back, I don’t think there’s anything they can do to collect it. After all, you can’t just announce that someone needs to reimburse you for random things they never agreed to. Otherwise, I too would like to give you an invoice for some made-up amount owed to me.

They suck.

(Also, it’s too bad you’re not in California for this one. They require employers must reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer,” so there wouldn’t even be any question.)

I suggest you explain to them that you’re not able to reimburse the company for normal costs of doing business, but that you wish them well. And if they try to withhold the money from your final check (which I don’t think they will, since their policy allows 30 days to pay this non-debt, but you never know), then you should go immediately to your state department of labor to intervene. State law requires them to give you your final paycheck, in full, by a certain number of days*. Penalties are usually attached if they don’t.

* To find out the specific law in your state, Google your state name and “final paycheck law.”

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 152 comments… read them below }

  1. Tiff*

    Well, that’s ridiculous. Our organization has similar language, but it’s related to tuition reimbursement not one-off trainings and site visits. What a wonderful way to keep talented staff away from your company.

    I really liked Allison’s suggestion about refusing these types of training events without a “zero day” time period. That type of thing won’t work well if only one person, or staff who aren’t held in good regard, do it. But if the top performers stick to their guns you can usually create some change. Good luck OP.

  2. Bea W*

    Wow. It’s not cool to make your employees foot the bill for expenses related to employer mandated training. It’s double not cool to make the time period for requiring the repayment totally arbitrary.

  3. BRR*

    I wonder if the OP even had an agreement to the period of time with their manager. This seems like a policy that is probably not followed until a situation like this occurs. I can’t imagine every time somebody goes for a site visit, managers sit their employees down and determine a period of time for which the employees must pay back the expenses.

    I find it is sometimes easier to play by their terms then to try and argue sanity. So if you didn’t have an agreement, then by their own rule you don’t have to pay it back (not that you should have to anyways).

    1. Jess*

      I was wondering the same. It seems like reaching such an agreement before a flight is purchased (or even discussing the matter) could be one of those policies that isn’t typically adhered to by the book…but I could also imagine the employer in this case attempting to impose a blanket 6-month policy for circumstances in which a separate agreement wasn’t reached with the individual manager beforehand. Either way, it’s ludicrous.

  4. fposte*

    “If the flight is purchased on miles, the employee will be required to refund the face value of the same flight in USD.” Seriously? So they get *extra* money from this?

    1. Elysian*

      This reminds me of my dad’s policy on paying for car insurance when I was a teenager – I had to pay to him the cost of what it would take to insure me on my own policy, even though I was added to his policy and got his discounts. Therefore, he made a profit off of me “reimbursing” him for my car insurance.

      Both policies are stupid and greedy.

      1. louise*

        Whoa! Was it possible for you to just get that policy on your own? That’s what I would have done. But I realize minors might not be able to be the main policy holder. But then–some kids could have a car/need insurance when their parents are not themselves drivers. Hmm, now this has me wondering.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          My husband had his own policy in high school. He lived with his aunt and uncle, and they didn’t want to add him. This was 20 years ago, though. I’m sure some things have changed.

      2. Anonsie*


        Parents with policies like this really confuse me. I have a friend whose parents bought a house “for” him last year, and by that I mean they picked out a place way far from his work and their names are on the deed but he gets to live in it. Only he also has to pay them market rent for it. I asked why he didn’t just pick his own place and buy it himself for less monthly expense plus the equity gained, but he seemed to think that was a weird thing to do.

        Not that I expect people to pay for their kids stuff all the time, either– my parents wouldn’t let me drive their car growing up because of the insurance premium hike. But “no, that’s too expensive” feels very different to me than “yes, but how can we do this so I actually make a profit off you.”

        1. Elysian*

          Re: “yes, but how can we do this so I actually make a profit off you.”

          I think this attitude is only slightly less asinine when applied to employees than it is when applied to children.

        2. Annon*

          I have a parent like this! She did the same insurance thing to me that the above poster mentioned. So glad I am not a teenager anymore! BTW, insurance on our 3 cars is less than it was 20 years ago for 1!

          1. teclatwig*

            Hrm. As a parent, I could almost see doing this so that the kid gets used to the true/independent cost, but!!!, I would set aside the difference (or have him do it) such that he would leave home with a maintenance savings account. Turning a profit off your kid is a whole other, distasteful, ball of wax.

            1. Chinook*

              “Hrm. As a parent, I could almost see doing this so that the kid gets used to the true/independent cost, but!!!, I would set aside the difference (or have him do it) such that he would leave home with a maintenance savings account.”

              My parents did this when it came to rent after we graduated. We got free rent until September of the year we graduated (i.e. to cover transition time) and then we had to pay the going rate for renting a room in someone’s house (though the food was still free). They wanted to make sure we knew how to budget for this expense and to ensure that we were staying there because we wanted too, not for the free rent. Then, when we moved out, they would give some, if not all, the money back to help with first/last/security and furniture. None of resented it and, frankly, we would rather pay rent to live with our parents thanw ith a random landlord and/or roomates.

              As for doing it with insurance, keep in mind that Elysian was probably not paying for wear and tear and, if like many teens, may not have always filled teh tank when they were done. I would have considered it as the cost of not having to go out and buy it myself.

              1. Elysian*

                “As for doing it with insurance, keep in mind that Elysian was probably not paying for wear and tear and, if like many teens, may not have always filled the tank when they were done.”

                HA! No. I paid for everything – car itself, gas, repairs, and insurance costs plus extra. My parents were jerks. They certainly did this just to profit off me. They also found ways to profit off of me going to college. They’re just awesome people like that.

              2. Blue Anne*

                “…frankly, we would rather pay rent to live with our parents thanw ith a random landlord and/or roomates.”

                Huh. That’s interesting.

                My Dad died when I was in high school, and I got a small life insurance payment until I graduated. Mom took $1,000 of it every month to pay the rent. (Leaving me about $500 monthly.) Which I can understand. It was a relatively tough time financially and the money was there to provide stability.

                But you better believe I was off like a SHOT as soon as I graduated. We lived in a 1 bedroom in NYC and didn’t have the best relationship, so I was paying $1,000 monthly to sleep on the couch and have my mom nagging me (and now I realize she may have a narcissistic personality disorder). I’d rather pay that to have my own place and my own rules. I got into a college in Scotland and flew here 3 days after graduating, and haven’t been back for more than a month at a time since. She was surprised, and that surprised me, because hello, obviously if I’m paying anyway I want my own place.

                Interesting (and kind of nice) to hear the other side of the coin. :)

              3. Melissa*

                My husband and I have talked about doing that with our kids, too (once we have them). It’d be so nice to walk away from Mom and Dad’s with the money for security deposits and furniture. I don’t blame my parents for not being able to do this, but I had no idea security deposits were even a *thing* until I started looking for apartments in graduate school and had to scrape together funds.

          2. Mallory*

            My husband’s dad is like that, too. He bought a Volkswagen Beetle from the family trust for $750, then he made my husband buy it from him for $2,500 because that was “fair market value” (this was back when my husband was still a very young adult and cowed by his dad’s authority).

            Then, while my husband was still making payments on the VW and wanted to move from California to Arkansas, his dad called him up several times to rant to him about not “abandoning [his] responsibilities” — i.e. he was worried about my husband not completing all payments if he left the state. At the time, my husband could barely afford to subsist in California, and moving to Arkansas boosted his standard of living exponentially, but all his dad cared about was his damned VW payment.


              1. Kat*

                I’m in. My husband’s dad was earning >$100k in the 90s (and was mostly absent from their lives). My husband wanted to borrow $2k off him (with a reasonable repayment period) to buy a car so that he could get to his work as an apprentice. His father refused on principle because he “should have to save it up himself”. Which was totally easy to do, seeing as he was on <$10 an hour, and DIDN'T HAVE A WAY OF GETTING TO WORK. Ugh.

                1. Cat H*

                  Ugh, I can relate to this!

                  I was in a lull for contracting when I managed to nab myself a contracting job which allowed to make more in a week than I was used to in a month (it was government). The hitch was that it was 40 miles each way and I knew that it would be 2 weeks before I’d get my first pay.
                  I asked my dad if I could borrow £200 to pay for petrol but he said no. I even said I’d pay him extra. It was a no because he wanted me to fend for myself – as I had been as I had my own house so was paying a mortgage!
                  I managed to get the money from my now husbands parents who were more than happy helping me out and I paid it back to them when I said I would.
                  I get what my dad was saying, but I just thought it was really harsh.

        3. Artemesia*

          WOW. What kind of twisted family would you have to buy an inconveniently located house for your kid and make them pay rent. I can see working with him to choose a place that works for him and to hold title if he can’t swing it and then use the ‘rent’ to pay the mortgage with a sort of rent to own deal. I wouldn’t do that myself either as parent or child — but it isn’t necessarily insane. But buying a place far from his work and expecting him to live there and pay? Weird.

          1. Anonsie*

            They intend to keep it and rent it to someone else one day if he buys his own house, they said it’s an investment property. Not sure why the first occupant had to be their son?

            1. Mallory*

              My husband’s parents did this with their kids, too. They would buy houses and “make” one of the kids live in it and pay rent. They encouraged them to get a roommate who would also pay rent.

              I think they just wanted to build up their investment property empire, and it was profitable to them to make their kids live in the houses. These people actually can be nice, believe it or not, but they can become blinded by greed to the point that they are real pieces of work. They just get really egocentric when there is a potential profit involved — totally weird.

              1. Koko*

                I had a friend whose parents did this, but he had a good relationship with them and was happy with the arrangement. I think he saw it as a favor to them to be the sort of on-site property manager for the house. He probably took better care of the place than a random tenant would have, lived in it the whole 6 years he was in grad school and kept it full with roommates he chose the whole time. He was going to be paying that rent money to someone anyway, it was by no means an extravagant/expensive monthly price…besides, when they pass, that house becomes his anyway, so it was in his interest to keep it maintained too.

            2. Ruffingit*

              I don’t understand why he doesn’t just move out and rent his own place. What is the point of what he’s doing now? He would have to be in a better position if he moved closer to work just for the money he saves on the commute.

              1. anonintheuk*

                I have an (admittedly naïve) friend who was paying her parents some socking great sum for living with them after university in her first job.

                She had to wait at the dentist one day and took to reading the local paper, where she discovered that for the money she was paying her parents she could rent her own place AND have £100 or so over which would deal with at least some of the electricity and gas bills.

                The relationship has still not quite recovered.

              2. Anonsie*

                It’s that whole deal where you forget that you’re not a kid and your parents don’t always know best. He seems to not think this arrangement is anything but entirely beneficial to him while also disliking the house and the commute.

                We’re also from cultures where you’re considered to really owe your parents as an adult, and paying them back for investing in you (literally and figuratively) is not unusual and is sometimes initiated by the parents. So this is less money-grabbing in that context, but even then it’s still unusually unbeneficial for the grown kid than it should be.

      3. Bea W*

        WTF Dad? He must have made a tidy profit from that. A new driver under age 25 pays a crap ton for insurance. I remember when i got my first car, the cost just for compulsory coverage was more than i paid for the car.

        1. Davey1983*

          Same thing happened to me. I paid $500 for a junker for my first car. My insurance was $600 every six months. What was really bizzare was that when I got married, and added my wifes vehicle to the policy, I only had to pay $300 every six months.

    2. Turanga Leela*

      Related, but almost the opposite: I had a great boss who let me use flight vouchers (which were about to expire) to pay for business travel, then had the company reimburse me in cash. It didn’t cost the company anything more than paying for the flight directly, and it made me so happy.

      1. Elysian*

        This seems like a much better policy. It costs them nothing, and breeds good will. These are the things that companies should do, instead of these other greedy policies.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I think it kind of sucks if they make their employees use miles for business anyway. We are able to use miles and rewards points for personal travel. Really, if you’re following the rules and booking through our travel software, I don’t think you even could use your airline miles.

      To me, if someone is away from home enough for business to accumulate enough to buy a flight, that perk should stay with the employee.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        If employees are using their own miles to buy tickets, then there’s nothing for the company to even claim it should be reimbursed for.

        1. doreen*

          I don’t think they’re talking about the employees reimbursing for tickets bought using their own miles- I think they’re talking about flights booked using the employer’s miles.

          1. Koko*

            The employer doesn’t have any miles. Airlines require miles to be tied to a person, not a company. Every company I’ve ever worked for, we used our personal frequent flyer number when flying for business because there’s no legal way for the miles to be put in the employer’s name. I guess in theory we could have all created a second frequent flyer account tied to a work email address and just forfeited all those miles when we changed jobs, but what would really be the point in that? The company doesn’t gain anything by it, it just removes a perk for the employee.

    4. Angora*

      I suspect that they have a high turnover rate if they are trying to re-coop expenses. I wonder how many people have given them the funds out the door and not questioned it. And the miles … they must losing money somewhere if they are trying to recoop it this way.

      Go to the labor board if you do not get your paycheck. I would recommend you inform them you’ll pay after you receive your next paycheck so they think you’re going comply. After you get your last paycheck with them … close it out so they don’t try to pull it back out. Open up a new account for your new job to protect yourself.

      They hit me as the type to turn around and will tell the back that you were paid the wrong amount; and than pull the funds right back out.

      Employers need to realize that stuff like this gets out; exiting and current employees talk to others in their professional network. They’ll have a terrible time recruiting new talent if this is the route that want to take.

      1. Angora*

        ‘close out your existing bank account’ the one your direct deposit goes into after you receive your last paycheck.

        1. Angora*

          I mentioned it further below on this site…

          OP … has anyone at work mentioned it to you? requested reimbuirsement? If not … I recommend you don’t remind them.

      2. Rayner*

        I wouldn’t do this.

        Agreeing – even if you know you won’t comply – means that you’re presenting a dishonourable front. When a person needs references – or at least confirmation of employment – and cannot 100% be assured that their reputation won’t be harmed by such behaviour, it’s stupid to lie and then go back on your word.

        It’s far better to be honest, and upfront, and deal with it professionally (even if that means going to the labour board and arguing it out that way), rather than attempt to pull a fast one on this place of work.

        1. Angora*

          True …. depends on the environment the OP is working under. I’m making an assumption they are dishonest. Shouldn’t do that.

          If they are a good employer besides this clause; be up front about it if asked. I just wouldn’t remind them of the police.

          If you are leaving due to some shady and dishonest dealings … I would protect myself.

        2. Dan*

          Not only that, but if the company has relationships with collection agencies, those guys will shoot first and ask questions later.

          If I had pristine credit (I do), I would *not* want to take that gamble. A single collection item will f up your credit report, and you may not get the chance to explain it away in today’s automated world.

          If I had a history of not paying my bills, I’d just add this one to the fold.

      3. Ruffingit*

        I would not, under any circumstances, tell them I’m going to pay if I won’t do so. It’s bad faith for one thing (which yeah, they are operating in bad faith too, but that isn’t the point), but the bigger issue is that it could form an oral contract depending on the situation. Just not a good idea.

      1. Anon*

        Nonsensical. Sorry, I’m not usually the spelling/grammar police, but it’s always when you call out someone else for their issues (like you did) that you tend to make a mistake yourself! Heh heh.

  5. AdAgencyChick*

    I wouldn’t be shocked if they try to deduct it from your final paycheck, hoping you won’t know to lodge a complaint. Good luck, OP, and keep us posted!

    1. Jamie*

      That’s what I was thinking, too, but there are limits to that. I believe they can’t take so much out of your check, as an exempt employee, that it would bring you down below minimum wage for the pay period – even if you agreed to the final deduction.

      If someone knows the specifics on that feel free to correct me.

      All I know is I have multiple equipment issue forms where the signer agrees that any equipment not turned in or damaged beyond normal wear and tear* will come out of final check, but if I ever had an issue I wouldn’t do a thing without talking to our labor attorney.

      As a practical matter, companies settle things all the time even when they are in the right because to fight it would cost more in attorney fees than it’s worth. I hate that because it encourages frivolous suits, but I get the logic. I can’t imagine why a company would want to spend money to collect on this, when any decent attorney would cost them more than eating the couple of grand before it gets to the first deposition. But there are vindictive companies out there.

      * for me, that means there have to be signs of you deliberately damaging it – I lean strongly on the side of benefit of the doubt so as long as I get it back and you don’t take a sledgehammer to it in front of me or change the password to IHateJamieSheSucks you’ll probably be okay.

      1. Dan*

        Because all you have to do is farm it out to a collection agency, they do the dirty work, and you don’t pay much.

        Granted, I don’t think this is practical if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with a debt collector, but if you do, it’s easy peasy.

        1. Jamie*

          Not if the OP has a lawyer send a letter and she is going to contest the legality of the debt. Then they are paying for lawyers.

  6. PizzaSquared*

    Does that California law apply if my employer is based in another state, with no presence in California, and I work remotely for them (from CA)?

    1. Barney Stinson*

      I’m not familiar with this particular law, but I can attest that I have to follow California law for our employees there, even though our company is based in another state.

    2. Sia*

      I’m not a lawyer, but am in a similar multistate situation and trying to resolve an employment dispute, and what I’ve found is that, barring any unusual circumstances, the state in which you reside and do/did the work is the state whose labor laws apply to you.

    3. Mints*

      I had a different question a while ago, but the relevant laws were for where I (Californian) worked, regardless of where everyone else was. Hopefully our resident employment lawyer chimes in

      Also can I just add– YAY CALIFORNIA

    4. Nusy*

      Not a lawyer, but AFAIK, unless your contract dictates otherwise, your possibilities are 1) California, where you performed the contractual duties, 2) California, where you reside, or 3) Whatever state your employer’s articles of incorporation are lodged in (for big corporations, this is often Delaware or Arkansas, due to their very favorable corporate laws/taxation).

  7. nuqotw*

    This is like saying to an ex “You broke up with me, so you have 30 days to repay me all the money I spent on dates during our relationship.”

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, these policies really make an employer feel like a jealous, controlling ex, don’t they?

      1. Adam*

        I’ve learned in business people will throw in these random asinine clauses all the time and it’s up to you to not fall for it when it becomes an issue. It’s like those non-compete clauses, which to my knowledge have never been held up as valid anywhere in the US although I’m not positive on that. Those are are like saying “We’re breaking up, and you can’t date anybody I’m Facebook friends with.”

        1. Elysian*

          Non-compete clauses are often found valid often enough; it depends on the state, the industry, the wording of the clause, and a variety of other things.

          1. Adam*

            I’ve heard it depends on a variety of factors, but that many a time they are considered just plain unconstitutional. It almost seems like of the draw. It’s a funny thing the legal system.

        2. anon in tejas*

          that is not true. noncompete clause do hold up in many jurisdictions and settings, which is why they continue to be used.

          1. Liane*

            Not a lawyer or HR person, but from what I have read, non-compete clauses may or may not be held legal, depending on how much the clause would limit your ability to get another job in the field. For example, a local radio/TV personality might have a non-compete barring her from working for stations in the broadcast area for a 1 year period, & courts would likely find that reasonable. However, if another DJ’s contract barred him from working for another station in the USA or for another local station for several years, either of those would probably be ruled unenforceable.

        3. Jamie*

          Just as a PSA – and it applies to this kind of thing between employer and employee, but even with vendors or other contracts – more is negotiable than most people think.

          I used to think that contracts were take it or leave it propositions for the most part, but I temped for a couple months in contract negotiation at a health care facility and my whole world opened up.

          I never sign anything without reading it thoroughly and I mark the hell out of contracts going back and forth on terms. Most copier leases have a clause in there that you pay to ship it back to them at end of term if you don’t renew. They expect you not to notice. Take that out…also put in items with all vendors for a discount for early pay, absolutely no buy out clauses ever, make sure you have prices locked in for the duration (in a 5 year contract sometimes the fine print will allow them to price increase after X amount of time…no…), etc.

          I’m a reasonable person and certainly don’t expect anything for nothing – and fully support businesses making a profit. That’s why they are doing it, I’m not trying to be the client on which they operate at a loss. But I’m going to keep my options as unencumbered as possible while locking in the best rate.

          I get dragged in to a lot of contract negotiations that have nothing to do with my department when people are doing them for the first time. Get the initial quotes and I’ll show you how to whittle it down to the best deal.

          Anyway – yes, if someone pushed a form to me to sign to pay back if I left in less than X period of time no matter how happy I was there and with zero plans to leave I’d crossed it out – written zero, initialed and asked them to do the same. Otherwise I wouldn’t sign on principle.

          I just can’t imagine working for an employer where this would be an issue.

          I bought a docking station once for my iPhone because I couldn’t hear the texts in the middle of the night (my servers shoot me an auto text when going off line and we have issues with power failure) and my boss was not happy that I paid for that with my own money. She overheard me recommending it to someone in the kitchen – it was a nice system. She wanted to know if I put it on the company card and I said of course not, and she said anything that I use in the course of work I am not to buy out of my own pocket. She insisted on reimbursing me – and I’m pretty sure she’d smack me if I bought a car charger or new cables personally and used them for my work phone.

          Heck – try bringing creamer in without the person in charge of petty cash chasing you down.

          I’m not saying that are frivolous – they aren’t – but it’s a culture thing that no one should have to pay to do their jobs properly.

          Now if only I could figure out how to expense my mortgage because I need my house to do my job properly…:)

          1. Clever Name*

            I do this too. My last company wanted me to sign a confidentiality agreement when I left the company. Okay, cool. I’m not the type of person to blab company secrets, so I am happy to sign that sort of thing.

            However, there was a nice little clause in there stating that I would be on the hook for their legal bill if they decided to sue me later. No thank you. If they want to sue me at some future point, they can do it on their own dime. So, I crossed it out saying, “I do not agree to this provision” and initialed it and signed at the bottom and happily skipped out of there.

            1. jag*

              I pushed back on text of a confidentiality agreement with my current employers, and they accepted my changes.

        4. DLB*

          My last company had non-competes for all managers. Strictly enforced (Sued a few former managers). Even if they were laid off or fired. Could not work for a competitor within 50 miles for one year. They really liked to screw people over. A few managers were let go, and then literally couldn’t have a job in their field for a whole year even though companies wanted to hire them . It was a very specific field, and only a handful of companies in the area that did the same thing.

          Old company has a terrible reputation in town. I am still surprised they are in business.

          1. Jean*

            Yikes! I hope your former company gets hauled before the state labor department or otherwise gets its ankles chewed by karma.

          2. Adam*

            I’m generally pro-business, but non-competes are one of those areas where I have yet to feel their existence justified in any circumstance I’ve been witness to. They just suck for everyone involved, only reflect poorly on the business using them, and what minimal attempt at “protecting themselves” they afford seems largely moot in this day and age.

          3. The Cosmic Avenger*

            Competitors need to share a PO box 50.1 miles from this company, and list that as their official location.

            (I know, it wouldn’t hold up, but still…)

          4. Cautionary tail*

            One year for 50 miles? Child’s play. Mine was for one year for all the USA and Canada. But I negotiated it and neutered it so that the penalties went from “the sum of anything I have ever and will ever earn in my natural life” [yes that’s what it said] to no penalty at all. I held to if they were going to force me to not have a job than they had to pay me a year’s salary in addition to any severance if I left the company involuntarily for any reason. We ultimately settled at them keeping the non-compete with no penalty listed if I went to a competitor. I figured that if they tried to enforce it then I could used the original version vs the final version to show that they removed all penalties therefore it was not unambiguous. It took four months to negotiate that contract and by then the three month probationary period was over.

    2. Dan*

      Judge Judy gets plenty of cases where two former lovers are arguing over what is a “gift” (and therefore you get to keep) or “it’s really mine and I want it back.”

      1. the gold digger*

        I am lucky to have nice ex boyfriends. I tried to give back a gift to an ex – it was something he had had for years and loved and he gave it to me. I wanted him to have it because I didn’t feel right about keeping it. (Also, I didn’t like the actual object that much – I just liked the sentiment that accompanied it.)

        He was grossly insulted that I wanted to return a gift.

  8. Mike C.*

    OP, I would even go a little farther than AaM suggests – if you’ve seen this policy enforced, I would take up a free consultation with a labor lawyer. Let him/her know your situation, they can tell you what rights you have in your state and you’ll be ready to go if the worst happens.

    If nothing bad happens, you don’t pay anything. If something bad happens, you’ll be ready to respond.

    I can just hear the OP’s boss right now, “we need to institute these policies because we keep losing good people…”.

    1. Angora*

      People should look into why they are hemoraging staff vs developing policy to punish them when they leave.

      1. AMT*

        There should be a management book with just this sentence over and over. The book should be large and heavy so clueless managers can beat themselves with it.

    1. James M*

      I was thinking that whoever came up with this policy values Franklin, Grant, and Jackson more than any employee.

    2. Jamie*

      Nah – this is what happens when petty and controlling people have final say on policy.

      I’m a beancounter. I work for beancounters. This wouldn’t fly.

    3. Malissa*

      No, a bean counter would point out that any money regained is going to be lost by having to replace every employee that thinks this policy is asinine.

  9. NylaW*

    This reeks of an employer who wants to punish people for leaving. OP, you were obviously right in looking for greener pastures. I agree with Mike C, it might be worth it to consult an attorney, especially if you know they’ve pulled this with other ex-employees.

  10. Employment Lawyer*

    Don’t pay unless you talk to a lawyer first.

    In my view–which is incomplete as I don’t know what state you’re in–the employer will probably have a difficult time enforcing this. That’s largely because the policy itself is unclear and is not routinely followed by the employer. But it’s also because such a policy is generally difficult to enforce.

    If the ER had a policy with a clear deadline (“30 days from travel”) it might change the analysis…. but they don’t. And if the policy was vague and your manager had routinely clarified it for every trip (“here’s your ticket, Mary. Just to make sure we understand each other, the refund period is six months.”) things might also be different…. but, again, that isn’t what happened here.

    And even if the ER did everything by the book, with a perfect policy, you still might not have to pay them back. Courts tend to think of things as required (not eligible for repayment) or optional (and potentially eligible for repayment.) The classic “optional” things are extra schooling, and moving expenses. Based on the description above, it sounds like this type of travel was a requirement of your job–and if so there is even more reason to refuse to pay it.

    Google “______ NELA employment” where “_____” is the name of your state. You’ll find a group of lawyers who specialize in this sort of stuff.

    1. littlemoose*

      I agree. My other concern would be that the OP might have signed something agreeing to be bound by this policy when it was instituted, like if the company asked all employees who travel to sign it as a matter of course. Then you may have a contest law problem. The validity of such a contract depends heavily on the facts and on your state’s law, so I really can’t speculate as to the possible outcome, but if that’s the case the OP is likely going to need a lawyer.

      1. Mike C.*

        You can’t agree to be bound by something illegal. For example, I can’t sign an agreement with my boss saying that if I’m called into work I will drive there as fast as my car will take me, regardless of conditions or personal sobriety.

        /Wow, I didn’t need spell check for ‘sobriety’!

        1. littlemoose*

          I know that. But assuming this reduction wouldn’t reduce the OP’s wages below the minimum wage, and the reimbursement isn’t taken out of her final paycheck in likely violation of labor laws, why do you think it would be absolutely be illegal?

  11. Diet Coke Addict*

    Will they also be requesting the cost of the paper you used and the pens, calculated to the exact amount of remaining ink in the ballpoint? How about the fraction of electricity it cost them to run your computer and light? Cripes.

    1. Wren*

      When I read the word “paper,” for a split second, I thought “toilet paper.” Now that would be really ridiculous!

  12. Celeste*

    Where I come from, professional development is some sort of class, with or without a certificate at the end. I don’t see how site visits, meetings, or even conferences count for that.

    It sounds like you should be able to get out of this, and I hope it won’t be too difficult.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Right? It’s like if you’re an account manager and you visit some clients, and the company says since you are leaving and aren’t going to be the account manager for them, you owe us money. I can’t see how these site visits benefit the OP & not the company.

  13. OriginalYup*

    Have you broached this with your boss yet? Apologies if I’m reading your letter incorrectly, but it sounds like you’re worried that they’ll expect reimbursement because of the policy, not because they’ve explicitly indicated that you’re on the hook for this amount. If you have a good relationship with your boss, I’d bring it up to him/her and get them on your side as soon as possible — ideally with an email between you to document that those trip costs were incurred as part of your job responsibility and you’re certainly not expected to reimburse the company for them.

    1. Angora*

      Not sure if I would bring it up. Did OP say that his boss or another individual mention it? If they didn’t bring it up; than I recommend you do not refresh their memory by asking about it.

      1. Rayner*

        I would. The policy is there. Ignoring it might mean that right at the end, there’s an ugly message. Putting it on the table now means that if there is a problem, solutions can be negotiated or a plan action (for the OP to argue it) can be made.

        Being proactive is usually far better than being passive and just hoping it won’t crop up.

  14. Poohbear McGriddles*

    It’s an asinine policy, but if they are hell-bent on getting that money from you there are really only two ways to go about it. Either they withhold the money from your pay or they tell you to write them a check. Since withholding money may cause them issues with the gov’t, the latter case seems more likely. Of course you could tell them to pound sand at that point, but they could turn it over to a collection agency who would harass you and try to harm your credit.
    Those are the means, as this non-lawyer understands them. If they do intend to collect, you’d do well to consult an attorney.
    The stuff about the airline miles makes me wonder – if you reimburse them for tickets that they are collecting miles for, do they have to give back the spiffy hats – and more importantly, upgrades – that they get as a result of accruing those miles?

  15. AnotherAlison*

    The period of time after the site visit will be determined by the employee’s manager, and will be agreed upon between the manager and employee prior to purchasing the flight.

    What’s so strange about this to me is that it seems like the employer has to open up a discussion about every employee potentially resigning every time they make a site visit. That seems a little awkward. “Jane, be sure to introduce yourself to Mr. So-and-So while your at X site. Oh, and don’t forget if you quit in the next six months, you owe us for all your expenses. Have a nice time!”

    1. BRR*

      I felt it was awkward as well. Like how often are you reminding your employees there are consequences if you quit.

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      The OP did not mention that she had in fact explicitly agreed to a timeframe before her recent flights. Unless this agreement has been made, and is writing, they lose. The timeframe needs to be set PRIOR TO PURCHASING THE FLIGHT. If there was no agreement before booking the travel, the company is out of luck. It’s fairly simple.

      On the other hand, if the OP did in fact agree (in writing) to a timeframe, it’s a tougher negotiation. We need more info from the OP.

  16. Ann Furthermore*

    This is asinine. I’d bet what happened is that one person behaved very badly (maybe incurring huge amounts of business expenses and then quitting) and now a policy has been enacted that makes everyone else suffer.

    1. BadPlanning*

      Yeah, I’m someone lined up a bunch of these “site visits” to assorted cushy local’s, didn’t really do any work and then quit. Now the company’s paranoid they’ll be used as a vacation generator.

      1. Celeste*

        Utterly ridiculous, since the lodging and meals for a trip always exceed the cost of the cost of the transportation after a few days.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t think that’s a bar to that misbehavior–generally conference payments include lodging and per diem, and even if they don’t, just getting your airfare paid is a big subsidy.

  17. EM*

    I’d be curious to know what would happen if someone refused to go on this kind of travel because they didn’t want to be on the hook for repayment — you never know what might happen in 6 months.

    Would the company then issue some type of disciplinary action? Also, I wonder why the company specifically included airline ticket purchases in this repayment policy, but not hotel fees or food expenses? So many questions, so bizarre!

  18. Lisa*

    This is a huge expense for salespeople who routinely travel 2+ weeks out of a given month. You are essentially paying back your entire salary and then some – where they make a profit off of you. This must be illegal since you can easily be way under minimum wage if you did have to pay.

  19. Apollo Warbucks*

    The firm I work for is very keen on using these agreements when it comes to professional qualifications and it works well. The firm put a lot of money in to internationally recognised qualifications and they are valuable to the employee so it’s only right they want to protect their investment. The agreement is very clear and the employee can decide if they accept the terms before taking the job. Normally you’re contracted to stay at the firm for a year or two after the qualification is finished.

    Also there are some ethics involved I’ve put the idea of going on a technical IT course costing $5,000+ to my boss a while a go and since then I’ve started interviewing for other jobs so I’ve let the course slide if he comes back and has the funding I’ll and put off going so I leave before the course starts or palm it off on one of my coworkers so they can go, as much as I’d want the training I couldn’t take it in good conscience and leave shortly after even without an agreement to repay the costs p.

    If you’re sent on a training standard course or site visit then it’s a cost of doing business and is not rechargeable to an employee it’s so far from acceptable that the employee would even think this is ok.

    1. Windchime*

      Our company wouldn’t do this for site visits or normal training courses, but we have a certain type of required certification that requires multiple trips to the midwest, lots of study time and exams. It costs the company over $10k per certification, and it’s required for people to do their jobs. We had the experience of several people becoming employed, getting the certification, and then immediately quitting to get better gigs as contractors. So now people who come into that department are required to sign a contract up-front and if they quit within a certain amount of time, they will be required to pay back the cost of the certification. It has put a halt to the mindset of “use the company to get the certification and then move on”.

      1. Celeste*

        I’m honestly curious–what are the reasons why life as a contractor is better than being an employee of your company? Do they get more money and cheaper benefits, do they get more opportunities for advancement, do they get to work on more interesting projects than if they stayed on and let you get the benefit of their certification? I wonder if this is addressed in exit interviews. It almost seems like people are treating the certification assistance as a perk to make up for something undesirable, until they can leave. But it seems important to the company to get certified staff, so they’ve got this program to grow their own. I guess I know they have a retention problem if they feel the need for this penalty to protect their investment–but what are they really getting if the person were to leave anyway and pay that back?

        It sounds very frustrating, and I’m sure there is a wish for them to have a certain loyalty in return.

        1. Celeste*

          The more I think about it, maybe it’s just as simple as the grass is always greener, coupled with pleasure at the idea that you were able to get something for nothing.

    2. Mike C.*

      If they want to “protect their investment” then they need to treat their employees well, not force them into insulting and possibly illegal contracts.

      Companies like these need to stop treating their employees as “investments” and more like, I don’t know, “people”. They are not commodities to be bought and sold on the market at a whim, and they’re certainly not indentured servants.

      I’ve seen companies that force employees to pay back the cost of an entire degree even after being laid off or having their location close down. These sorts of practices are abusive.

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I don’t see it as insulting, the firm will spend three years and many thousands of dollars putting someone through professional qualifications in return they want you to agree to stay for a year or two after qualification so they get so es value out of the time and money they put in.

        I work for a professional services firm no one is treated like a servant, the pay and benefits are really good and the contracts I’m talking about are very benifical to the employees you can double your salary after qualifying and the firm pays that once you pass your last exams, because the market rate for the qualification is easy to quantify they don’t have a choice.

        Being laid off and asked to pay is wrong and an absolute abuse, I can’t believe anyone would try and enforce that. It really does rub salt into the wounds.

        1. Windchime*

          This. The company actually treats people very, very well and pays a competitive salary. But contractors are always paid more, because they have to provide their own benefits and pay their own taxes. The people who have done this must be coming out ahead (otherwise why would they do it?), but they have to travel all the time and don’t have as much (any?) job security.

          The way my company sees it is that they have paid over $10k to get the person certified, have given the person many hours of paid time to study and take the exams; the company should get some benefit from all this training.

          The certifications are highly sought after and the only way to get them is to be employed by a company who uses the product that the certification is based on. A person can’t just sign up for training and certification themselves; they must be an employee of a business who uses this software. A contract such as I described tends to make people think twice about getting a job with us just to use us to obtain certification and then immediately quit to go into contracting.

          And yes, it’s legal.

          1. Melissa*

            Actually, they might not be coming out ahead. Some people don’t think about the fact that they have to provide their own benefits and pay self-employment taxes – all they see is the huge difference between their old base salary and what they could make as a contractor. In fact, I remember reading once that a reason so many small businesses go under early is because the owners fail to account for the cost of doing business, and don’t realize that for the first few years most lose money.

            I’ve never been the self-employment type, but personally I’d much rather work for a lower base salary but provided benefits and a guaranteed paycheck.

            I also don’t think this is barbaric or anything. It’s kind of like tuition reimbursement: many jobs will pay for you to get a degree but then require you to work with the company for the next 2-3 years.

      2. Windchime*

        I agree that asking anyone to pay a reimbursement after being laid off or otherwise losing their job is outrageous and should be an exception to any of these types of contracts. The type of thing I’m speaking of is only to deter people from using our company as a vehicle to obtain certification and then skip out.

        1. Jenna*

          Ok, this may be a really nerdy obscure thing, and I may be derailing, but…
          This reminds me of when I was playing Everquest in a small family guild. We’d help the cleric get their epic(an item that could resurrect dead player avatars with a click, and terrifically useful in that game), and, then the cleric would quit our little family guild and join a raiding guild pretty much immediately. No, our little family guild couldn’t raid the big monster encounters for the most wonderful loot, but, the raid guilds that could do that weren’t going to help anyone get the cleric epic item. They required you to have it before joining. I felt used. I suppose they felt that having the cleric around for the time that they were around was sufficient payment, but, I still felt used.
          /end video game derail

  20. scmill*

    Be sure to go post about this on Glassdoor so that potential employees will be aware of the craziness in this company!

  21. Em*

    I’m slightly confused. In the beginning of her letter, the letter writer says that the policy requires “employees pay the company back for any professional development (conferences, etc.)” But the policy itself only mentions site visits for the purpose of education. To me, “site visits” and “any professional development (conferences, etc.)” are different things, and Alison’s answer focuses heavily on “site visits” by my definition. Not that this policy isn’t ridiculous no matter what, but the context of the answer may differ if by “site visits” they mean “any travel for education, including conferences.”

    1. Lizzie*

      I think the OP’s line of work is related to education, not that they’re pursuing educational opportunities for themselves.

  22. Dr. Speakeasy*

    It sounds to me like this is an academic adviser – and academia is weird about travel AND funds are tight everywhere. I’m not saying that this particular contract is right (it isn’t) but I can see this going down.

    The majority of travel at a university is on a reimbursement basis. For example, I’m expected to present a couple times a year and have $500/semester available to me. It always costs more, I always have to pay it out of pocket, and we’re told how lucky we are to have $500 available. So I could see someone treating this (a business trip) like academic travel and thinking, well, if they’re not staying they have to pay it back! Like sabbatical which requires you to stay for a year after the sabbatical or else incur all kinds of costs.

    But it isn’t the same because it is for a professional staff position – so it should be handled like business travel (don’t get me started on academics not counting as professional staff).

    1. Dr. Speakeasy*

      Oh and that $500 is on a competitive basis. I may not actually get it, but I have to commit to the conference first.

    2. Melissa*

      I’m in academia too and this is one of my biggest pet peeves about it. I’m currently finishing my PhD and I hate that I’m expected to present 1-2 times a year, but often don’t have travel funds to support that and have to compete for a $500 award – which means that I am paying out of pocket for the costs of doing business. And my university is a terrible slow behemoth, so getting reimbursed could take 2-3 months.

      And you have to be presenting to get the $500 – you can’t just go to the conference for networking. Luckily I have a travel fund now and will next year in my postdoc.

  23. Editor*

    I wonder if the person who wrote this regulation doesn’t get to travel for work and thinks site visits are vacations because “Oooh — overseas!” The company is confusing a work category with a work location.

    An employer’s budgeting challenges are not a justification for requiring employees to pay employer-initiated business expenses, or any other business expenses.

  24. Anon*

    I may be about to go to work for a company that has a similar policy (but for professional development like conferences, etc., not for visits to other company sites!) It’s a FABULOUS company, though – so employee-friendly, and one of my BFFs work there and can attest to the way everyone is treated. It’s first-class all the way – except for this stupid policy. We’re in Australia, though, so I’m not sure if this is more common/accepted here (I’m newly in the country, originally from the US).

  25. snuck*

    Given the wording “Periodically, employees will visit program site(s) relevant to their advising duties to gain first-hand experience and become better prepared to promote the site(s) to students, parents, and universities.” I suspect this is a business that has satellite locations in other countries – maybe education or travel business.

    Sending staff to those locations is about work, but in some cases (eg. travel businesses) it’s also a lot of recreation – albeit in the name of the business – and while it increases the staff member’s knowledge of the area (useful for business) it’s also a huge perk and fun almost-holiday for them too (not all jobs with travel, but some!).

    I wonder if the OP’s job falls in to this category – where the travel was basically “go to some small European country, travel on a Contiki tour and then come home and be better able to tell all our prospective students about our study exchange in that country and how awesome it is”… because if that’s the case then it might be reasonable to expect the OP to hang around for at least six months after (esp. if the OP is in a general role which is the sort that many could do – otherwise you’d have people sign up for the job, go on the trip, quit).

    1. Nonny*

      Given the mention of representing sites to parents, students, and universities, I think this is likely a study abroad provider or perhaps another form of student travel company. This is a guess, but it’s my field and… fairly similar to a policy at my company… enough that I was feeling personally vindicated by the response. A lot of people at my company (and perhaps in the field in general?) act like these types of policies are perfectly normal and almost expected. Perhaps they think it’s their response to a field that naturally has a lot of turnover, but I find this type of policy only discourages employees and hurts morale. It certainly doesn’t inspire loyalty if they can’t trust me to travel in good faith!

      1. Nonny*

        I should clarify, by a lot of people, I mean people in HR and upper management at my company act like these policies are normal. Everyone else seems to agree with the sentiments you see in these comments. And I’m sorry for accidentally replying to “snuck” instead of starting a new thread. While I understand what snuck is trying to say, in that “fam” trips may contain some fun, from my experience I think most study abroad business trips provide little down time. You’re still expected to do your regular job even if you spent 10 hours observing students on a day trip and you’re jet-lagged in South Korea. The trips can be great, but still are business trips, and therefore I find the policy ridiculous.

        1. snuck*

          Yeah – it depends on your employment – if you still have to do your regular job, you are sitting in classes or similar etc over there then it’s def. not a holiday!

          If you are a student travel agent and seeing all the sights so you can sell more travel that’s different.

          I agree it’s not a good policy for retaining quality staff – resentment inducing.

  26. Callie30*

    OP – This is ridiculous. Did you and your manager discuss the time frame for this trip, according to the policy – Was it 6 months? And did you sign anything? Have they mentioned it? I’m afraid if you signed an agreement relating to this trip and if this policy isn’t illegal in the state you’re in, you may be responsible for it (as ridiculous as this is!). If you haven’t or if they haven’t even mentioned it, then this is easier to fight.

    They shouldn’t be able to hold you financially responsible for trips that you are required to take for your job – like other’s have said – someone could leave due to illness, etc. But even with those circumstances removed, this is baffling. Alison’s response is right on here.

    Good luck!

  27. Priya*


    First all of awesome website great job pls keep it up.

    I have a similar question related to your earlier scenarios but its not the same.

    I joined this company in November & after joining, I was informed that entire December we would have training in another city.

    After reaching the other city, the training & environment turned out to be a disaster & the attitude / ego classes between all of us made it an unbearable situation that I decided I would be leaving the job soon.
    In the middle of this trip I had to travel back for a week due to a family emergency.
    However, I did report back the following back at the training centre & I travelled using the advance company had provided us for contingency as this was an unplanned situation.

    By the time I got back, 1 month had passed & we were initially informed trip was only for a month, but now we were informed that it would extend much more.
    It was the holiday season & hence after my return we were at the training centre only for a week more then entire team came back.
    This time we were told to book our own tickets & get it reimbursed later from the company.

    This is the situation & after we got back I resigned & said due to treatment & mental torture I am resigning & since I am less than 2 months old & still in probation period I will not serve my notice.

    1st – can I claim the expenses incurred on tickets for travelling on a family emergency as part of contingency ?

    2nd – Since we did not sign any bond of any sort the company is not liable to sue me for cost incurred cause I resigned right ?

    3rd – can the company ask me to pay up the amount I had received (lump sum) for that 1 week that I was away due to an emergency ?

    4th – I would be liable to pay up any amount for which I cannot produce a bill according to normal company policiy right ?

    5th – Can company file any sort of case against me for my unprofessional behaviour ?

    6th – Will they ask me to pay up salary for the notice period & leave ? (I am still in probation & its only been 2 months) I worked for 2 weeks of the month in which I tendered
    resignation & didn’t get paid for those either.

    Finally, I wanna know if at all company can do anything to me since I did not sign any bond stating I would pay up the cost if I resigned later ….. otherwise would it be better to ask them to offset expenses with my F&F assuming that they do not make an issue of my resignation

    Pls advice, very confused.

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