The complete guide to corporate travel policies

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Why a corporate travel alcohol policy is so essential

It's a question all companies will have to ask themselves when starting to send employees on business travel: should alcohol be included in travel expenses? For many employees, it's considered standard. Plenty of meetings with potential clients include a business lunch or dinner with a glass of wine. But, a growing number of companies don't consider alcohol to be an essential part of doing business.

When creating a corporate travel policy, it's vital that companies have clear rules and guidelines about alcohol for their employees. Producing a corporate travel policy that is reasonable, transparent about reimbursable expenses, and that puts employee safety as the top priority is key. So let's break down the key considerations for any corporate travel alcohol policy.

What to include in the policy?

Corporate travel policies outline a business's preferences for employee travel arrangements and related expenses. Anything that staff needs to be aware of when traveling for business reasons has to be included.

Any guidelines you wish to establish around travel costs, from airfares to meal expenses to gratuities and mileage reimbursement, must be detailed within your policy. For example, suppose top tier levels of management are permitted to purchase business or first-class airline tickets. It would help if you clarified who can benefit from this perk and who cannot in your corporate travel policy.

Being transparent around what your organization regards as business-related expenses and what should be considered personal expenses is essential. It's also crucial to relay how employees can claim their travel costs in your expense policies. Suppose your company needs travelers to keep original receipts, but they took photos and threw them away. Business travelers could be left incredibly frustrated if this wasn't clear before departure. Having a document that outlines these expectations that every corporate traveler can access is vital to ensure business trips run smoothly and employees are happy. 

Company attitudes towards alcohol are another extremely important element to define for business travelers. Below, you'll find a breakdown of the essential things to clarify and add to a corporate alcohol policy. These apply to issues of both reimbursement and safe consumption alike. Crafting a corporate travel policy alcohol that's clear to employees and leaves as little wiggle room as possible is best for avoiding unpleasant situations down the line.

  1. Allowing alcohol or not
  2. Reimbursement
  3. Acceptable drinking conditions
  4. Safe travel

1. Allowing alcohol or not

The first question to ask is whether or not to allow alcohol at all within office hours and during business trips. Setting these limits can be challenging. Too lenient and employees can end up inebriated and in potentially dangerous situations. Too strict and team members can feel disrespected and stifled. Ultimately the path an organization chooses is shaped by company culture and the type of work being done. 

Asking employees to stick to non-alcoholic beverages is certainly the easiest, most cost-effective, and least risky approach for a company to take. On the other hand, this might not go down well with employees who feel they are wholly responsible with their drinking and expect to be able to have an alcoholic drink at a work event.

In many cultures, it's not unexpected for alcohol to be served when taking clients out for dinner or lunch. Sharing a glass or two of wine with prospective clients has historically been pretty standard on business trips. Rather than banning alcoholic beverages, a fair middle ground may be to allow one or two drinks if the employee is eating dinner.

Depending on the company culture, the countries you operate in, and the reason for travel, it might be straightforward to impose a zero-tolerance policy. But for other businesses, allowing team members to drink responsibly while traveling might make more sense for employee morale. An honest discussion with human resources and other key decision-makers can help decide what approach is best for your organization.

2. Reimbursement

Assuming the corporate alcohol policy allows for employees to drink at all, the next question for businesses to ask themselves is about the company alcohol reimbursement policy. 

Broadly, there are three approaches companies take when establishing expense reimbursement rules for alcohol.

The first is to allow alcohol but to make it the choice and the cost of the employee. If alcohol is deemed acceptable for the work, but not a business necessity, then employees may be able to buy alcohol at their own cost. Alcohol in this scenario would be permitted, but not considered as part of business expenses, since it serves no business purpose. Hard drinks aside, food and other beverages need to be made reimbursable during international travel for work. 

The second is to have a set limit on alcohol. Many companies will allow employees to buy one alcoholic drink during business meals if it’s with a client, which the employee can pay with the company credit card as part of their per diem allowance. Alternatively, a set financial amount can be allowed for the employee. Companies taking this approach need to make it clear the difference between how much employees can reimburse alcohol, and to what extent they’re allowed to drink past that point, if at all.

The final option is a more laissez-faire approach. Employees are allowed to buy, drink, and expense alcohol without limits as if it were another type of food altogether. This is the riskiest approach, and steps should be taken to ensure the company isn’t legally at risk should the employee take things too far.

3. Acceptable drinking conditions

The conditions of drinking during work trips need to be made clear in company policies. Employees will always want to push the limits, and while most will drink responsibly, even one rogue example can cause serious problems. Traveling, especially abroad, can also lower inhibitions. Having a defined alcohol policy is essential to ensuring that the business purposes of the trip remain front and center.

When do you consider it acceptable for an employee to drink alcohol? As we have seen, it's traditionally been accepted for workers to drink at a dinner with a client or at a networking event. But, an employee having a drink from their hotel room mini-bar may be less desirable. Outlining company alcohol policies with clear examples like these can help establish expectations around responsible drinking and avoid the need for disciplinary action or, in the worst case, a public relations fiasco.

Another important consideration for international travel is the legal drinking age in different destinations. For example, in the UK, the drinking age is 18 years old. Giving young employees from the United States, where the legal drinking age is much higher, free rein to drink on the job is extremely risky. The wisest move is to include clauses in your code of conduct prohibiting employees under your country's legal drinking age from consuming alcohol on work trips regardless of their destination's laws.

Separate from the issue of reimbursement, it's smart to put a limit on the number of alcohol employees can drink during a business trip. One or two alcoholic beverages while building relationships with clients or during a networking event is ok. But any more, employees can forget they are in a work environment and risk being unprofessional. Again these numbers all come down to context. In certain industries, staff may need to consume alcohol as part of their role. For example, buyers or partnership managers in the alcohol industry might have different purposes for their trip than other retailers.

4. Safe travel

Organizations have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure their teams are safe on the road, whether commuting or traveling further afield for business purposes. To fulfill their duty of care, companies must do everything possible to keep business travelers safe. This means having a plan for travel arrangements after any company event where you are serving alcohol or where staff could be under the influence of alcohol. 

After the consumption of alcohol, employees driving should be prohibited, even if using their personal vehicle or if the company has paid for a rental car. Similarly, walking around a strange city after a drink poses a huge risk to the employee when traveling with an overnight stay.

Whether during a business trip or a company holiday party, permitting coworkers to consume alcohol without planning for potential outcomes is risky. It must be clear that employees need to find a safe way home or back to their hotel room. 

Rather than using public transportation, encourage employees to take a taxi or ride-sharing service. Reassure that staff should add the costs to their business trip expenditure or for events at the office or in their hometown speak to their department head to have expenses reimbursed by the company. 

Wherever possible, pay for these services ahead of time to ensure teams know their safety is paramount.