No Accounting for Taste

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Like many people — perhaps even some of you reading this — I earn a living by providing services in exchange for monetary compensation. I do a thing, and then someone pays me a previously agreed-upon sum of money for that thing. The system is imperfect, but it generally functions adequately for me and the other people who perform labor in exchange for payment.

I recently encountered trouble with one of my clients, however. It doesn’t matter which one. Pretty much all large or large-ish companies have the same approximate system for paying freelancers, and this system results in occasional screw-ups regardless of the overall integrity of the company. Far be it from me to bite the hand that feeds me! Although I do get a little bitey when the hand is two weeks late, on account of I gots to pay my rent, yo.

Anyway, what happened was that it got to be the first week of a new month, and the payment that normally shows up in my bank account around the 27th had not yet arrived. A simple oversight, I figured. In all the hustle and bustle of clicking a box next to a couple dozen people’s names on a computer, whoever the box-clicker was that day had accidentally skipped over the box next to my name. Honest mistake. No big deal.

Or so I thought. As it turns out, whenever bureaucracy and money are both involved, there is no such thing as a thing that is no big deal. All deals are big. The way the process normally works — and again, it’s more or less the same everywhere if you’re a freelancer or independent contractor — is as follows.

Each month, I send my editor an invoice. Then he takes it to his boss for approval. Since his boss has no idea who I am or what I do for the company, he asks my editor, “Is this correct?,” and my editor says, “Yeah,” and so his boss signs the invoice. Then the invoice goes to the accounting department, whereupon something magical occurs and the money ends up in my checking account.

The details of what transpires in the accounting department are shrouded in secrecy. While the department must exist in a physical location somewhere in the world, it might as well be inside the Narnia closet for as much direct contact as anyone ever has with the people who work there. Most of what we have learned of the accounting department’s practices has been pieced together secondhand from reports given by those few who have interacted with them.

I am pleased to say that I am now one of those few! But I am getting ahead of myself.

First I contacted my editor to see if he could determine when I would be paid. My editor, of course, knows nothing more about the accounting department than I do — even less, perhaps, since he is an actual full-time employee of this company and might thus become more of a liability if he were ever to learn too many of its secrets, whereas I, as an outsider, can do little harm. But according to what he was able to glean through his communication with the oracles who prophesy on behalf of the accounting department, a “check run” would take place the following day, and I would have my money the day after that.

I was savvy enough to know that a “check run” must be the accounting department’s slang term for “paying someone.” But I was troubled. The way I saw it was this: Someone’s job was to pay the freelancers every month. This person had somehow neglected to do this one thing and, being made aware of his or her oversight, was now saying, in effect: “My goodness! That one task that I perform every month slipped my mind last month. Sorry about that! I will take care of it! First thing tomorrow!” And I thought: Well, what are you doing today? It was not yet noon. Would the rest of the workday be spent in preparation for tomorrow’s big event? Does the computer software take 24 hours to boot up? Must the accounts-payable employee go through some kind of ritual purification process before he or she is worthy to press the “Return” key on the computer keyboard that will send the money — the same amount of money they send every month, by the way — to my account? It was already a week late. Why must it be delayed any further?

The answers to these questions cannot be understood by mortal men. So two days later, when the money still had not arrived, I set out to obtain wisdom from the source itself. I called the accounting department. I spoke with a very nice man who seemed perfectly normal in every respect. He was surprisingly candid about the accounting department’s practices, at least in terms of telling me what they were. He did not — or could not — elaborate on the reasoning behind the practices. So I have had to infer that myself.

Here’s what I learned. A check run can only occur every 14 days. It is a fortnightly event, possibly tied to the moon cycle. When the accounting department gets the invoices, they must wait until the next check run to process them. In this particular case, they’d received my invoice from my editor on the very day of a check run. However, the idea of receiving an invoice and then immediately paying it — all in the course of one workday — is, as you have no doubt already surmised, preposterous. Invoices need at least a day, sometimes a day and a half, to ferment before they are ready for processing. The accounting department will process no invoice before its time. When the invoices arrived that morning, the head of the accounting department probably shook his head and said, “Ah, that’s a shame. If they’d gotten these to us yesterday, then we could have put ’em in today’s check run. But same-day turnaround? No sir. Not here. Not on my watch.”

So my invoice had to wait until the next check run, two weeks later. The accountant I talked to verified that it had indeed been included in the latest run, which had occurred the day prior to my speaking with him. The reason it had not appeared in my bank account yet, obviously, was that it takes more than one day for imaginary electronic money to be transferred from one account to another. That’s typically a three-day process because of the great distance the electrons must travel.

I was satisfied that my payment was in the works and would appear in my bank account in the next two days. But as long as I had the ear of someone in the know, I pressed forward with my questions.

“Let us imagine a hypothetical situation,” I said. “Let’s say my editor bursts into your office the day after a check run and says, ‘Holy crap, I totally screwed this up, I accidentally left an invoice out of the batch, my writer isn’t going to get paid on time, his rent is going to be late, and he is going to be very, very persnickety about it. Can you possibly do a special payment so he doesn’t have to wait another 13 days?’ Would you be able to do that?”

The man I was speaking with said, “No, that’s not possible.” Then, apparently by way of explanation, he added, “It takes six people to process a check.”

He said this without any hint of bewilderment or irony in his voice. He didn’t say it like, “It takes SIX people to process a check, can you believe that??” He said it very plainly: “It takes six people to process a check.” He said it as though the concept of a six-person squad being required to perform a basic bookkeeping task made perfect sense in his world — and, what’s more, as though it had never occurred to him that it might not make sense to other people.

Bear in mind, I have direct deposit. These “checks” we’re talking about, the ones that take six people to process, are purely figurative. Heaven only knows how much more complicated the process would be if an actual check were involved, if someone had to actually obtain a writing utensil, fill in the details on a blank check, SIGN it, and MAIL it to me — to bring the U.S. Postal Service into the equation! — well, there’s no way such a thing could be accomplished by the accounting department in anything less than a year and with anything less than a staff of 500 people.

Bear in mind also that this is the “accounts payable department” within the accounting department. The sole function of the accounts payable department is to pay the accounts that are payable. It’s right there in the name. And somehow they have concluded that the most efficient method of doing the one simple task assigned to them is a system that requires the efforts of six people. I considered telling him that when I pay my rent, I just write a check and give it to my landlady — all by myself! Just me! I don’t have to call in five of my friends. I don’t have to get a staff of interns from the local college. I don’t have to go downtown and pick up day laborers. I just write the check and hand it over. If I had told the accountant this, would he have marveled at my abilities? Would I be considered a savant in the accounting world? Would I become the source of a folk legend that would be told in accounting departments for generations to come? “I once heard tell of a fella called Snider, they say he could process a check all by his lonesome.”

Anyway, the point is, there’s no way to do a special check run. A check run can only occur twice a month. To engage in the payment of one’s contracted laborers at any additional time would be sacrilege. It would also be impossible. All six of the people involved in processing a check would have to be in collusion, as all six must perform their tasks simultaneously, from six different computer stations located several feet apart, lest any one person somehow obtain the complete list of procedures and cut a check by himself. And even if all six did conspire to pay someone the money he was owed on a day that was not a designated “check run” day, the system’s failsafe device would kick in. You have seen this failsafe device in action before, in the climactic scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The money arrived in my account two days after I talked to the accounting man, just as he foretold, and order was restored. The only way to prevent problems like this in the future is to submit your invoices a year in advance and pray that the accounting department smiles favorably upon your foresight.

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