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Is Office Gambling Something That Should Concern HR?

Summary: Companies around the nation allow office gambling to happen. Is it really that big of a deal?

Is office gambling something that should concern HR?

Look high, look low, and we see that gamblers actually form the majority of the world's inhabitants. – James Runciman, 1893

Runciman's words were written more than a century ago, but they still ring true. It seems that everyone—even folks who normally wouldn't think of betting on anything—gets a bit of the gambling bug when the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament come around.


Morale Maker or Money Taker?

Much of the money wagered on both events is in the form of an "office pool." Experts say more than $1 billion is wagered illegally on Super Bowl weekend alone. After all, it's just a little harmless fun, right? Pony up a couple of bucks, throw your name into the pool, and hope that fate and Lady Luck smile kindly upon you.

Super Bowl office pools are a little bit like speeding on the freeway—everyone does it, but that doesn't make it any less illegal. Both large and small companies tolerate these pools, even while HR managers grudgingly admit that they violate corporate policy. In many instances, corporate policymakers and leaders are among those taking part in the pools.

But this "see no evil" approach may create more problems than it solves.

"You should have a policy about gambling in the workplace," says Sandra Frogman, "and you should stick to that policy, no matter what it says." Frogman points out that each business has its own corporate culture, and an office pool might be inappropriate.

So, with next year’s Super Bowl looming on the horizon, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your company's stance on office pools. Although the games may not directly affect productivity—and may even be viewed by some as a team-building activity—there are real pitfalls to be considered.

KISS (Keep It Small, Stupid)

While office pools are a form of illegal gambling, small $1 to $5 entry fees generally won't attract the attention of the local vice squad. But if the entry fee moves up to $100 or so, that could change. At $100 per entry, the pool could fetch $10,000, and that sum might attract local authorities and the IRS. After all, even if the winnings are illegal, they're still taxable.

Sensitivities of Others

Aside from the legality issue, there's a common-sense reason many HR policies prohibit gambling in the workplace. It's the same reason girlie magazines aren't allowed in company cubicles. It's called "offending your coworkers." Some people view gambling as one of life's more insidious and malignant vices; whether they're right or wrong is irrelevant. The fact is, they consider office pools to be offensive, and companies need to take that into consideration before condoning the game.

Hard Feelings

There's an old saying: "It's always fun and games until someone gets hurt." The same might be said for office pools. They may seem harmless and fun, but it doesn't take much for someone to feel slighted. If, for example, the contest is won by the person who runs it, or if the entry slots were assigned in a less-than-open atmosphere, you can bet that someone will question the propriety of the game. If the pool is worth a large sum of money, this problem is almost unavoidable.

Gambling Addictions

You can't always tell if a co-worker has a drinking problem—and you might not spot a gambling addiction, either. An office pool, no matter how innocent and friendly, is the last temptation someone in that situation needs to confront.

Take all of the above into consideration, along with the culture within your company, as you craft (or update) your corporate policy on gambling.

"As a practical matter," Frogman asserts, "most companies choose not to see an office pool going on." Still, more than a few companies come to her group for advice. Frogman also keeps it simple: "If you have to ask us what to do, that's a good sign to get on the stick and do something about it."

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