March Madness: How to deal with office betting pools

March 14, 2011
in HR / Employee Relations

Issue: The NCAA basketball tournament has turned many a workplace into mini-Las Vegas, as employees feverishly study the stats that may mean victory in the office betting pool.

Risk: Betting pools can sap productivity, but the real danger comes from compulsive gamblers on your payroll.

Action: Don’t crack down on minor pools, but write a policy on habitual gambling at work.

A workplace betting pool is like that five-mile-per-hour buffer above the speed limit: While it’s technically illegal, it rarely draws the attention of law-enforcement entities.

Your organization probably won’t face legal trouble for tolerating small betting pools among employees, but it could face other problems, including declining productivity. The HR consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates lost productivity during the 2011 tournament, which begins this week, will top $1 billion.

One management guru even sees an upside to NCAA tournament bracket pools. Diane Swanson, management professor at Kansas State University-State, says low-stakes betting can increase employee morale and output.

“Such activities at work do create a bond among employees and increase their interest in being at work and foster a climate of solidarity,” Swanson says. “Instead of people sitting solemnly around and not connecting, these kinds of things can help to connect people and create bonds around a focal point of interest.

Bet on a few problems

Sports gambling, especially on college sports, is illegal in almost every state. Managers shouldn’t officially sanction gambling pools. Keep the amounts wagered low. Remind employees not to use company Internet resources.

Keep things under control by developing a written policy regarding workplace gambling. In it, define gambling, spell out prohibited behavior and explain the disciplinary consequences of violating the policy.

Questions to ask when developing your policy: Are all forms of gambling prohibited? Are there exceptions for sports pools, raffles or company-sponsored events that support a charity? Are violators subject to termination?

If you allow pools, be prepared for complaints from employees who are uncomfortable with gambling. Handle them the same way you do any workplace complaint. After assessing the situation, take appropriate action to resolve the issue. Follow up with the complainant to make sure the solution cured the problem.

Spot signs of gambling problems

For employees with a gambling addiction, an NCAA basketball pool could trigger big problems.

Advice: Consider providing training to supervisors on recognizing signs of problem gambling and on handling the situation. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, problem gambling is “behavior which causes disruptions in any major area of life—psychological, physical, social or vocational.” Between 4 million and 6 million U.S. adults could be considered problem gamblers.

Good resources for helping problem gamblers:

Some common signs of a gambling problem are:

  • Absenteeism or tardiness because of late nights of gambling-related activities, such as card games or trips to casinos
  • Long lunch periods or disappearing during the workday, especially in the afternoon
  • Use of vacation time in single-day increments instead of a block of days
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Excessive use of the telephone—perhaps to call bookies, off-track betting parlors or to track down more money to bet
  • Obsessive interest in sports scores or results
  • Theft, fraud or embezzlement
  • Garnishment of wages
  • Frequent requests for pay advances.

The ADA specifically excludes compulsive gambling as a disability. Therefore, you are not obligated to accommodate an employee who is a pathological gambler. You can’t be held liable under the ADA for failure to accommodate a gambler.

However, if you spot signs of problem gambling and they start to affect employee performance and productivity, raise your concerns in a nonjudgmental way. Remind the employee about help available through your employee assistance plan, credit counseling services or other support organizations.

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