Sometimes it’s more convenient for employees to pay for business expenses out-of-pocket. Whether it’s a dinner with clients, new tools for a specialized job or gas to get to meetings, business costs often end up on employees’ personal credit cards. It’s common practice to pay the employees back. And doing it correctly and expeditiously can keep your employees happy while reducing your overall tax burden.

What Is an Expense Reimbursement?

An expense reimbursement is a payment to an employee for a business expense he or she paid for out of pocket. As a general rule, if the expense is a legitimate business expense, that reimbursement is not taxed, and the company can claim either the full or partial cost of the expense as a tax deduction.

The IRS policy states, “to be deductible, a business expense must be both ordinary and necessary. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your trade or business. An expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.”

What Is an Expense Reimbursement Policy?

To claim expense reimbursements as tax deductions, payments need to be made under what is called an accountable plan. The IRS says expense reimbursement arrangements under accountable plans must follow these three rules:

  1. The expense must have a business connection. The employee must have paid or incurred deductible expenses while performing services as an employee.
  2. The employee must adequately account for these expenses within a reasonable period of time. The employee does this by filing an expense report and including documentary evidence such as receipts.
  3. The employee must return any excess reimbursement or allowance within a reasonable period of time.

If expense reimbursements don’t comply with those requirements, they need to be treated as reimbursements under a non-accountable plan. These expense reimbursements will be taxed and treated as wages. Having both accountable and non-accountable plans can be useful if the business expense policy allows for reimbursement of non-business expenses like the cost of a gym membership as an incentive to employees.

The IRS doesn’t require accountable plans be written, but it’s a good idea to do so. Many of these requirements may already be laid out in the business’ expense policy.

Why do Businesses Have/Need Expense Reimbursement Policies?

Reimbursement policies set clear expectations for employees on what expenses they can expect to be paid back. The clearer the policy is, the more likely employees are to comply. Having policies in place also helps streamline the approval and payment process and ensures that those reimbursements remain tax-free.

An important characteristic of a reimbursement policy is that each transaction should be substantiated, which means there needs to be proof that it took place and was for a business purpose. This minimizes the opportunities for misuse and fraud.

Prior to 2018, employees were able to claim miscellaneous itemized tax deductions for unreimbursed work-related expenses like home offices, uniforms and employer-mandated medical exams. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act removed these deductions, which makes it especially important that your employees are able to easily be reimbursed for business-related expenses.

What Expenses Should a Business Cover?

There is no federal law explicitly requiring expense reimbursement. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act employers are required to reimburse employees if the work-related expense brings the employee’s pay below federal minimum wage, according to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM).

However, reimbursement requirements vary by state. California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana, New York and Washington, D.C. require certain expense reimbursements. For example, California requires employers to reimburse some cell phone costs if the employee uses his or her cell phone for business use.

Expense reimbursement is a widely accepted and agreed upon best practice because of its tax and employee engagement benefits. Which expenses the business covers varies according to what the business does and its culture. Some of the things a business may allow expense reimbursement for may not be tax deductible, such as reimbursement for moving expenses (not deductible unless the person is in the military) or bicycle commuting. But the business may still opt to provide them under a reimbursement arrangement for the benefit of the employee.

Basic items to consider including in an expense reimbursement policy include:

  • Business-travel expenses such as lodging, meals and transportation, but not entertainment.
  • Use of a personal vehicle for business purposes.
  • Telecommuting expenses, such as phone and Internet, may be required under several state laws.

Benefits of Reimbursement Policy for Small Businesses

Aside from the major tax benefits, here are some other reasons a small business should have a reimbursement policy:

  • Increase compliance. For expenses to be tax deductible, they have to meet IRS guidelines to be considered part of an accountable plan. A written and formalized policy helps you and your employees know which expenses qualify for reimbursement. Clear communication helps your employees adhere to the policy and follow its limits.
  • Curb fraud. Some 56% of CFOs in a Robert Half Management Resources survey said they have seen an increase in the number of inappropriate reimbursement submissions from workers over the last three years. Not all inappropriate reimbursements are easy to spot, like trying to expense a boat purchase. Instead, some are less clear and may slide through, like childcare or office supplies for personal use. A reimbursement policy that evolves with regulatory changes and external drivers provides guidance for employees—most often well-meaning ones—seeking reimbursement.
  • Reduce unnecessary communication. When expectations are clear, it streamlines the approval process because employees are less likely to claim expenses that fall outside of the policy. This reduces the time from filing to reimbursement and increases satisfaction for everyone in that process, including the employee, their approving manager and accounts payable department processing the claims.

6 Steps to Creating an Expense Reimbursement Policy

To create an expense reimbursement policy, follow these steps:

  1. Define what is covered and what’s not. For example, when it comes to travel reimbursement, common items to exclude are airline upgrades, babysitting, housesitting, pet-sitting/kennel charges and commuting between home and the primary work location.
  2. Put limits on how much employees should spend, and make sure they estimate reimbursements when possible. For travel, federal agencies provide some guidelines you can consider. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics posts average domestic airfare prices. And the IRS releases standard mileage reimbursement rates annually. Don’t forget to cover the relationship with suppliers and contractors in the expense policy.
  3. Consider how your employees may leverage the expense management policy beyond business travel, such as submitting reimbursement for home office expenses. For tax purposes—and in some states for statutory compliance—it may make sense to reimburse employees for these items.
  4. To take advantage of tax deductions, make sure the expenses can be reimbursed under an accountable plan. Write down your business’ accountable plan reimbursement arrangement. Many of these requirements may be defined in the expense policy already.
  5. Create an expense report for your employees to submit for reimbursement that includes the following information:
    • Name
    • Employee ID number
    • Date of submission
    • Time period of reimbursement
    • Cost center (e.g. a specific project, client, etc.)
    • Amount
    • Business purpose
    • Any documentation, such as receipts and invoices
  6. Automate the error-prone parts of the process. Implementing expense management software has many benefits. Some systems use optical character recognition (OCR) technology that converts scanned documents such as receipts to searchable PDFs. For accurate mileage calculation, systems have built-in GPS integration. Integrating expense software with a payroll system speeds up reimbursement. Best-in-class companies process employee expense reports in 3.5 days, according to The Aberdeen Group, a B2B marketing company. When you automate the process, the software flags inappropriate expenses and errors, notifies approvers and even integrates into payroll.

4 Reimbursement Best Practices for Small Businesses

The goal for the best reimbursement processes is to remove roadblocks to payment. Here are four steps small businesses can take to help make your policies and procedures as efficient as possible.

  1. Examine the policy regularly. Make sure the policy keeps up with changes in the tax code as well as environmental and economic conditions. A best practice is to establish a travel and expense committee with representatives from several parts of the business, such as corporate communications, finance, human resources, sales, and possibly legal to meet monthly and review and update policy as needed.
  2. Communicate the policy beyond onboarding. Send emails on a regular basis and provide training sessions about significant updates for managers and other employees. If a policy needs to be updated, the message should come from someone in your leadership team and clearly explain why the changes are being made and where employees can find the latest information. Give examples without calling out specific employees to highlight tricky areas and explain how to avoid them. If you have an employee intranet, post that memo in an easy to access section.
  3. Reimburse business expenses under an accountable plan to lower taxable business income.
  4. Enforce the policy at the highest levels. More than a quarter of reimbursement fraud comes from executives and upper management, according to a survey by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. It should be clear that the policies apply to everyone.

Employee Expense Reimbursement Policy Template for Small Businesses

Look closely at the types of expenses common to your business. For example, if you have a lot of business travel, consider creating templates for your employees to fill out. The IRS provides a sample template for mileage on a vehicle and a template for business travel reimbursement. Templates will help you identify common expenses and streamline the reimbursement policy with all the necessary information in one place. The templates also help you keep the accountable plan requirements in check so expenses can be tax deductible.

Expense management can be a tedious process with lots of error-prone manual data entry and paperwork. Expense management automation makes that process quicker, easier and reduces the possibility for errors and fraud. And its popularity is growing. In fact, a survey by Technavio, a market research group, estimates travel and expense management software to grow 12% annually. By knowing the federal and state regulations, the tax code and ensuring employees’ needs are met you can reimburse employees in a way that is responsible both for your business’ bottom line and your employees’ needs.