Sunday, November 24, 2013

Professor for one year (week 28): Another German compound process: Reisekostenrückerstattung (travel reimbursement)

Last week, I wrote about my conference tour this fall.  As this tour had no private aspects, it was a "Dienstreise" (business trip) and in that case, you can get a reimbursement for your traveling costs -- train or plane, hotel, conference fees, etc.  In German, that's "Reisekostenrückerstattung" and it's not only a compound, it's also complex.

In Konstanz, you have to fill this two-page form: 
It first asks for your address and some personal data and your bank account in the left part of the first page -- this part is easy.  Then you find seven points of instruction how to fill out the reverse side.  Generally, if you need complex instructions for a form, it's a badly designed form.  So this is a first hint that the whole process might not be an easy one.

You have to state when and where you started your travel, when and where it ended and when the "Dienstgeschäft" -- the reason for your travel -- started and ended.  If you remember last week's post, I started my tour in Paris (not my usual "Dienststelle" (place of employment) nor my "Wohnort" (residence) and neither in one of the corresponding countries) and it ended in Zurich (my residence, but a different country than my "Dienstort").  I went from Paris to Berlin to Zurich (for a short stop-over and exchange of cloths) to Florence -- so from France to Germany to Switzerland to Italy.  I crossed three borders and I would have to state the exact time when I crossed which border -- I never heard the captain of a plane announcing that just now we would be crossing a border, so I invented a time.  For the hotel where you stayed you have to justify why you stayed in exactly this hotel.  Of course for Florence and Berlin it's "Nähe zum Dienstgeschäft, Einsparung von Fahrtkosten" -- it wouldn't have been possible to commute.  But these boxes look like check boxes, not radio buttons, so should I also tick other possibilities?  But it was different for Berlin and for Florence.  But then, these boxes are identical to the ones you have to choose for the end point and starting point of your travels and here it's impossible to start from two or more places at the same time, so maybe they are both radio buttons.  I treat them this way.

Interestingly, if you don't travel by train, bus, or plane but by "Kfz" (motor vehicle), you have to state the "Hubraum" (engine displacement) -- up to 600ccm or more.  There are probably different reimbursement rules depending on whether you go by Harley or by VW van.

You have to input the amount of money you spent, but no currency is given.  So do I have to convert expense in CHF and US$ to € or just state them?  I chose the latter and wait what will happen.

For comparison, this is the form the Institute of Informatics at the University of Zurich uses:

Yes, apart from stating address and bank account, it's a simple table where you insert the kind of expense you asking reimbursement for.  And it's even assumed that you might have had expenses in different currencies.  It's a simple single-page form.  You might invent other layouts for this form, but the important part is that you don't spend hours with filling the form.  The German Department at the University of Basel had a similar simple document.  For reimbursements by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences there isn't even a form, you submit receipts for all your expenses, state your bank account and address and that's it.

And don't forget to add your "Dienstreisegenehmigung" (business trip approval).  For this I had to fill an even worse designed two-page document beforehand asking all kind of things -- but not about estimated costs.  It has even more explanations and the parts to be filled out by you are scattered to the two pages.

You even have to fill this document for trips you won't ask for reimbursement.  I guess the main reason for those approvals are insurance issues: You have insurance at your place of employment, but for all other places you need a private insurance.  So if something happens outside your office, the employers insurance is responsible only if he approved that it was necessary that you had to be outside your office.  It's different in Switzerland: As soon as you work more than 8 hours a week, you're insured via the employer for accidents inside and outside your office ("Berufsunfall- und Nichtberufsunfallversicherung").  So there is no need to get official approval to meet with colleagues or clients for a meeting outside your office -- you only need to get approval in case you ask for reimbursement of travel costs as different grants or accounts might be used to cover your expenses.

I guess the more badly-designed documents you have to fill, the more you get accustomed to fill them without thinking.  But this is no good excuse to design poor documents!  And I even haven't mentioned the language used in those forms -- it is far from plain language.  There is much room for improvement from a document design point of view.

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