Gambling and Arguments: Just Another January at Work

Striking a balance between ‘fun’ and ‘disruption’ before Super Bowl Sunday

By Dana Wilkie Jan 26, 2015

Walk into this place, and you might witness heavy gambling, impassioned arguments and longtime friends taking sides against one another. 

No, it’s not a Wild West saloon. It’s what your workplace might look like just before Super Bowl Sunday.

Super Bowl XLIX pits the New England Patriots against the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1, 2015, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. EST.

In the days leading up to the event, the workplace can come to resemble a betting hall or debate club, with employees organizing pools to select the Super Bowl victor and fans arguing the merits and shortcomings of each team. It’s up to employers to know where to draw the line between good old-fashioned fun and disruptive—or even illegal—behavior.


A 2013 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that most employers do not have policies regulating workplace betting pools. More than 8 in 10 surveyed organizations had no written or unwritten policies about such pools, an increase from 67 percent in 2010. That, even though an estimated half of American adults bet on the Super Bowl, according to a 2011 Dallas Morning News story.

Office pools, however, may be illegal. Gambling is illegal in most states, although some states allow an exception for social gambling, which is typically defined as betting that happens in a strictly social context, in which the betters previously knew one another and in which no bookies are involved.

Although workplace Super Bowl pools might fall under that exception, it’s always wise to research your state’s laws. It’s also advisable to check your own organization’s policies—and if such a policy doesn’t exist, to talk with executives about their views on workplace betting. In 2011, Verizon dismissed six workers in Taunton, Mass., because they participated in an office Super Bowl pool; the company argued that the betting amounted to illegal gambling.

“An employer should not collect a fee from employees for participation in an office pool,” said John A. Snyder, an attorney with Jackson Lewis P.C. in New York City. “If it is a company-sponsored pool, the employer should make it clear to employees that participation in such pools is completely voluntary, and that no negative action will be taken if an employee chooses not to participate. The management team also should set an example. If managers are spending a significant amount of working time discussing the game and the lead-up to the game, employees will follow.”

A company should also be on the lookout for problem gamblers. The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events of the year for gamblers, and those with addictions can suffer severe financial losses. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said in a press release that “the problem gambler may feel the only way to quickly get back that money is to gamble more and more, desperately chasing their losses. This can lead to a downward spiral of increasingly negative consequences.”

Signs of a problem gambler include: repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling; losing sleep over thoughts of gambling; arguing with others about gambling behavior; depression because of gambling losses.

That said, the 2013 SHRM survey found that HR professionals see workplace pools as having a positive impact on employee morale. More than two-thirds (70 percent) noted a positive impact on relationship building, 64 percent thought pools promoted team building, and 54 percent said they increased employee engagement.


There are other ways to acknowledge the upcoming game without exchanging cash. Some organizations have a variation on Super Bowl gambling in which employees who “bet” on a team win prizes such as gift cards, restaurant vouchers, movie tickets or the opportunity to have money donated to a charity of their choice.

Matt Norquist, a senior vice president for consulting services with Right Management, said he and his colleagues once divided employees into two teams that played competitive games throughout the Super Bowl, including a game of touch football during halftime.

“Another practice that happens everywhere—and in my experience, boosts morale—is the spirited discussion leading up to, during and after the game, where coworkers, bosses with their employees, and even senior leadership with more junior staff all engage in arguments, gentle ribbing, and supporting your team or rooting against the other team,” said Norquist. “This can serve to flatten the hierarchy, and that effect can be more than just temporary—providing new avenues for dialogue down the road, based on the shared experience of debate during a game.”

Wearing team colors to work just before game day is another common way that employees celebrate the Super Bowl, as is organizing Sunday game-watching parties. Norquist once worked at an organization that aired the game on a big screen in the main company lobby for those working Sundays.


Conversations about the upcoming game are to be expected, but those,coupled with workplace betting pools, can be disruptive.

In 2007, consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated that American employers lose up to $16 million for every minute their employees spend focused on the Super Bowl.

“Employers can suffer lost productivity in the days and weeks leading to the big game,” according to a 2013 advisory put out by Jackson Lewis LLP. “Employees may spend parts of the workday discussing the game and earlier playoff match-ups, as well as related statistics and player injuries. Social event coordinating and even betting on the outcome … may occur during working time. Many employers even have reported decreased productivity on the Monday after the Super Bowl, when employees discuss game highlights, the commercials and the halftime show.”

Time Off

If post-game productivity is a concern, Norquist said, organizations should consider allowing a late start the day after the game, or allowing workers to take a planned holiday.

“I advise my clients and managers to encourage fun, but to also encourage planning,” Norquist said.

“If an employee plans on starting late or missing work the day after the Super Bowl, plan for it. What we don’t want as companies is a bunch of employees showing up late or not at all as an unplanned sick day. If a large enough population calls in sick, that has a deleterious effect on business. Most organizations provide ample time off, and there is no reason it can’t be used the day after the Super Bowl, and similarly no reason for that to be an unplanned absence.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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