“Speaking” of Ethics

The National Speakers Association is the predominant trade association for professional speakers. Its membership is about 3,500 and it draws about half of those people to its annual convention.

It maintains a Hall of Fame, of which I’m skeptical, since I’ve been inducted into it.

Recently, their monthly magazine, Speaker, carried the anonymous comments of members on the subject of whether a speaker should charge a client for expense reimbursement when, in fact, the speaker didn’t incur the cost (frequent flyer points were used, or alternative transportation was used that was less expensive).

A few of these anonymous contributors actually concluded that it’s fine to use “hard earned frequent flyer miles” which are “cash equivalents” and charge the client for coach air fare. (Since I fly first class, as do most top-flight speakers, and the client reimburses us for that service, I’m suspecting these unnamed speakers are not exactly raking in the big bucks.)

I wrote a letter to Speaker, of course, but the chair of the editorial board indicates that she is not going to print it (“We have no letters column”!!) so I want to make my righteous indignation known herein.

Charging for expenses not incurred is unethical and fraudulent. That applies to speakers, consultants, coaches, facilitators, and hot dog vendors. Your expense account should not be a profit center. You deserve to be “made whole” for expenses, but that’s it. (Why on earth you’d use frequent flyer miles for a business trip is beyond me, unless it is specifically to try to make money from the client’s expense reimbursement. The entire notion stinks to high heaven.)

Frequent flyer points are not “hard earned,” they’re obtained while flying on somebody else’s expense report. Nor are they “cash equivalents”—if you believe that, try to make your car payment with them.

This is as bad as the consultants I used to know who would visit two clients on one trip and charge both full expenses instead of pro rating them. That’s not a grey area or subject to debate. That’s, ah, cheating.

That’s unethical. Want a test? Would you like someone to do that to you? Would you like your carpenter to charge for a better grade of wood than actually being used, or a subcontractor to charge for the local Marriott when he’s actually staying with his brother nearby?

We need to stop messing around and pretending that just anyone’s opinion constitutes a legitimate set of values. And if you don’t put your name on it, I’m not interested in your opinion at all. Reminds me of the occasional crank call I get after I speak from some coward who is threatened by my content or style. Stand up in the session so I can demonstrate how dumb you are.

If your client isn’t paying for first class air fare, maybe you need be put your energy into being a smarter marketer. And if the client is paying first class and you’re flying in coach or for free and collecting the difference, maybe you need to have a six-year-old explain to you the difference between right and wrong.

© Alan Weiss 2007. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Speaking” of Ethics

  1. While I respect and understand ‘common practice’, I hope you will understand and recognize ‘asking questions’ as a form of learning.

    That being said, I have always wondered about the practice of putting ‘expenses’ on the bill of the client. This seems like an excellent opportunity to ask someone well respected in the industry.

    As an aspiring speaker, before I get to the that point, I wondered if it would be more attractive to the client to preset one price that takes the expenses into account. Do you think this might be so? Would you be able to tell me why professional speakers “add on” the price of expenses?

    Thank you in advance.

  2. Tony says:

    I absolutely agree with Alan on this point. I think it is borderline stealing to do some of the shenanigans that Alan describes.

    Michael,
    One benefit to including expenses is there is no unknown in terms of budget to the client, meaning they don’t get a huge expense bill at the end. Plus, it may help to sell the fee you require by saying I’ll take care of all the incidentals. One plus of going the other route and separating out the expenses is for capitalization purposes or being able to show what came out of your pocket versus what was intrinsic value you brought. Another benefit is you get away from discussing fees/expenses and can just focus on value!

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