Some Employees Bet Hundreds on March Madness

Office pool fees tend to be small but individual betting sums can be large

By Allen Smith, J.D. Mar 21, 2018
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​March Madness office pools for the National Collegiate Athletic Association College Basketball tournaments can be a great way to build camaraderie, but HR may have to intervene when employees bet on each game for large sums, according to Steve Miller, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago.

If workers are not spending just $5 to $10 on a typical pool for the entire tournament but are putting larger amounts on the line for each game, fights can break out when one employee tries to collect from another worker and he or she doesn't pay, Miller cautioned, though he described those instances as rare. But he said they are common enough that some employers have instituted no-gambling policies in the workplace.

Even pools aren't risk-free, cautioned Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago, noting that there may be religious objections and disgruntled employees blowing the whistle on pools to law enforcement officials.

Employers shouldn't sponsor pools, Miller added. They often overlook when employees organize them though because participating in the brackets help team-building, he noted.

Pools vs. Betting on Each Game

The amounts spent on March Madness pools tend to be small, an Office Pulse survey indicates, finding that 61 percent of business professionals are taking part in a bracket this year—up from 30 percent last year. Gen Xers were the most likely to participate, with 68 percent entering.

The survey asked how much employees plan to spend on their office pool and found:

  • $5: 17 percent.
  • $10: 34 percent.
  • $20: 35 percent.
  • $50: 12 percent.
  • Other: 2 percent.

But a TSheets survey suggests that betting large sums on individual games is going on to some extent. The survey inquired whether workers make bets on the tournament, and the respondents said:

  • Yes, between $1 and $50—23.4 percent.
  • Yes, between $51 and $100—9.3 percent.
  • Yes, between $101 and $500—1.9 percent.
  • Yes, between $501 and $1,000—5.5 percent.
  • Yes, over $1,000—6.2 percent.
  • Yes, but not for cash or money: 7.4 percent.
  • No: 46.3 percent.

If an employee tells HR he or she has a gambling addiction, the employer should refer that employee to an employee assistance program, respond to resulting performance or attendance problems and be vigilant about theft or embezzlement, Weiss said. Those who choose not to participate in pools because they are recovering compulsive gamblers should not be coerced to participate, according to John Snyder, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in New York City.

Religious Objections

Employees may be offended by pools or even sue if pool participants are insensitive to their religious beliefs, Weiss cautioned.

Managers who refer to March Madness as their religion and say they pray for their brackets can make some religious employees uncomfortable, he said.

He noted that one manager called an employee his lucky charm and asked her to fill out the brackets for him, track the results, and report them to him when he was in meetings, even though she opposed gambling for religious reasons. She filed a complaint.

Financial Concerns

Sometimes workers feel wronged by March Madness pools for financial reasons.

One worker was denied a bonus in February and blamed company executives. When she saw them gathering and talking loudly about the office pool, she contacted the state police and said the employer was running a gambling ring. The resulting police raid hurt the company's reputation, Weiss remarked.

Brian Markovitz, an attorney with Joseph Greenwald & Laake in Greenbelt, Md., said it is "highly unlikely" that law enforcement will seek to enforce anti-gambling laws against office pools. "However, if a company wants to be completely safe, it shouldn't give out any prizes."

Be aware that friction between employees can be created if pool entry fees are too high, noted Joshua Davis, an attorney with Goulston & Storrs in Boston and New York City.

Inefficiency

Most employees enjoy pools and watch games when they can, the Office Pulse survey suggests.

When asked how much time they spend watching March Madness at work throughout the whole tournament, 37.9 percent said they always have it on in the background, whether on a TV, their work computers or their own devices.

It can be hard to keep workers on task as March Madness gets bigger every year, Weiss said, noting it can strain some computer systems when workers stream games on their work computers. While employers can monitor what workers are watching on company equipment, it's more challenging to monitor what workers are watching on their own devices during work hours.

The consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas has estimated that this season's tournament will cost employers billions in lost productivity, Snyder noted. Remind employees of any nonsolicitation, nongambling and electronic communications policies, he recommended.

Managers should allow a reasonable amount of banter about brackets but should be more visible in the office this time of year, walking around more than usual and immediately stopping insulting talk among workers about one another's teams, as that can turn into profane language or even comments prohibited by anti-discrimination laws, Weiss said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

Boost Morale

On the positive side, Bernard Tisdale, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Charlotte, N.C., suggested that employers capitalize on March Madness' team-building opportunities by:

  • Devoting the break room television to the games.
  • Allowing employees to wear clothing or pins displaying their favorite team.
  • Organizing a dry March Madness party around a local team's game.

 

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