Find The Umbrella And The Danger of Absolutes


The Find The Umbrella parable is likely apocryphal but it’s a useful way to explain why absolute rules in companies can backfire from their intentions. While there are many versions of the story, here’s the one I’ve told:

A salesperson flies to meet a client only to find an unexpected severe thunderstorm is drenching the city. Rather than showing up soaking wet, he buys an umbrella for $20 from a street vendor. The umbrella keeps the salesperson dry for a while but, being poor quality, breaks in the gusty wind later in the day.

When he gets back to the office, he submits an expense report for the trip, including the $20 for the umbrella. Finance rejects the expense report with a note that personal items like umbrellas are not reimbursable. The sales person ruminates for a bit and a few days later re-submits the exact same expense report with a note explaining the umbrella was a work expense, as he only bought it due to the trip and can no longer use it. Finance rejects the expense report again, reiterating IN ALL CAPS that the rules state personal items are not reimbursable.

Increasingly annoyed, the salesperson submits the expense report for a third time removing the line item for the umbrella but keeping the total expense the same. He added a defiant note: Find The Umbrella!

On the surface, the salesperson conducted expense report fraud by claiming reimbursement for an item not covered by company policy. He clearly broke the rules – even if it’s only $20. As absolutely no personal items can be expensed, finance was only doing their job.

But should the expense report policy be an absolute rule?

Expense policies sometimes require interpretation or flexibility. For example, it’s common to have a per person limit on how much can be charged for a meal. If approved in advance, these limits can be increased for special circumstances (such as expensive cities or company celebrations).

But what happens if the employee inadvertently goes over the limit, perhaps by as little as $1? A strict interpretation of an absolute rule would be to deny the expense or at least force the employee to pay the difference. A more reasonable result would be to remind the employee about the policy, pay the full amount, and track if this becomes a pattern of behavior.

Which brings us back to the umbrella. While not covered by policy, we should pay the expense. It’s reasonable behavior for the salesperson to have purchased the umbrella while in that situation and there’s a low probability it will happen again.

The only open question is how to find the umbrella hidden in the expense report. The odds are it is buried in inflated dining expenses, the most common type of expense report fraud. Or, as my first boss quipped when he told me the Find The Umbrella parable: “He ate it.”

, ,


  1. Rules or Standards? - Manage By Walking Around - July 16, 2023

    […] Find The Umbrella And The Danger of AbsolutesApril 30, 2023 […]

Leave a Reply