Business travel ethics for geeks


Computer geeks like things to be black or white, right or wrong. Ethical issues can thus confuse them when there are shades of grey. For example, take plagiarism. When writing an academic paper, it is clearly right to write everything from scratch; it is clearly wrong to copy large chunks of the paper straight from someone else’s paper. But things get fuzzy between these extremes: Is it OK to copy parts of a previous paper that you wrote? Is it OK to paraphrase someone else’s paragraph? The answer is that it depends on the particular circumstances. Unfortunately, some computer geeks become tiresomely legalistic at this point. They have been taught to write computer programs so that every possible circumstance is considered. But try to apply this to Real Life and you find it does not work. You cannot cover every possible situation and in trying to do so you get ridiculous statements such as “you must never re-use a sentence you previously wrote in another paper.” [0] In Real Life, you need some guidelines and you need some sense and you need to handle each situation as it arises.

One of my jobs is to approve all travel claims in my university department. Booking university travel definitely falls into that uncomfortable ethical grey zone. Of course, there are regulations and procedures for the spending of public money on business travel, but they cannot cover every eventuality. It is necessary for a traveller to identify the ethical middle ground between flagrant extravagance and ludicrous penny-pinching. It is obvious that flying first class to an academic conference is an extravagance. It is also obvious that sleeping under the railway bridge to save on a hotel room is ridiculous. But the shades of grey in the middle cause mild ethical dilemmas for the academic geek. For a geek, that broad ethical middle ground often seems to shrink to an ethical tight rope.

Let me give you an example. My next conference starts on Monday morning. If I fly there on Sunday, I will arrive in good time and have a good night’s sleep before getting to work. The flight will cost £1000. If I fly out on Saturday instead, the fare will be £500 and the extra night’s hotel will cost £100. I can save the taxpayer £400 by staying the extra night. To most people, that makes sense: they would book it and get on with their lives with no further thought. But the geek will start to worry: Am I getting a day’s free holiday at the taxpayer’s expense? [1] Should I pay for that extra night myself? [2] What if someone audits it and says it was inappropriate to have the extra day? [3] Lots of worry over something that most people would not give a second thought.

Now turn that situation around: what if my child is playing in a concert on Saturday night and she wants me to attend? I know that I could save the taxpayer £400 if I miss the concert. Should I do so? To most parents the answer is blindingly obvious: no, I should support my child. Most parents would not even have bothered to check the cost of Saturday flights because they knew they had a prior commitment. But, again, the geek will start worrying: I know I could save £400 by missing this concert, isn’t that saving worth my child’s disappointment? [4] What if I am audited and someone realises I could have saved some money? [5] So the geek gets tied up in knots over ethical problems that most people do not see as problems. Most people know that there is a broad middle ground that is ethically acceptable. The geek wants things to be tightened down to a narrow path of guaranteed acceptable behaviour.

I am, of course, assuming that our geek wishes to behave ethically. Not everyone does and that is what the regulations are for. Some people will try to get away with as much as they can. The financial regulations are written on the assumption that everyone might act unethically. In doing so, they offend the ethical geek because they imply that he might act unethically. The ethical geek must remember that the regulations are designed for the unethical traveller. The ethical traveller will naturally attempt to find the most economical options.

Which brings me to the other fault that geeks tend to exhibit: they take things to the extreme. When booking a conference hotel, you need to consider all the factors, not just the cost. When I attend conferences, I work a 12-16 hour day. I need to be on top form. A purely cost-based view of accommodation might lead a geek to book the cheapest youth hostel in town, requiring an hour’s trip on public transport to get to and from the conference each day and giving him a poor night’s sleep every night. This is a poor use of his time: he needs to be working at full capacity while at the conference. I have discovered that I work best if my hotel room is within 10 minutes’ walk of the conference venue. I can then concentrate on the job, rather than on trying to navigate a strange city. I can also use my room as a base during the day, rather than as just a place to sleep at night. It is worth a little more money to enable me to do my job properly.

At the extreme, I have known colleagues choose cost-saving accommodation in a known dangerous area of a strange city and I have even heard of one PhD student who chose to sleep rough in a strange city to save money. Even the University’s financial procedures (which, remember, are written with the unethical in mind) advise against such extreme behaviour in the very first paragraph: “Employees should travel and be accommodated in safety with reasonable comfort.”

Hmmm, it says “in safety”. Does that mean I can take my wife along as a bodyguard? [6]

Notes for geeks
[0] This statement is intentionally over-the-top and should not be taken as advice.
[1] Yes and no. Yes the taxpayer is paying for it. But no because otherwise the taxpayer would be paying even more.
[2] No. That would be ridiculous. You’ve just saved the taxpayer £400, why would you hand over another £100?
[3] Unlikely to happen and, if it does, you have a cast-iron financial reason for taking the extra night’s hotel.
[4] No.
[5] Oh good grief.
[6] No. Or at least, not at the university’s expense.

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