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by Maureen Q. Dwyer, Esq.

It’s once again time for “March Madness,” the NCAA basketball tournament. The 65 teams will soon be selected, brackets announced—and office-betting pools printed out. Then comes the agony of whether to select a Cinderella team or your alma mater. If your workplace is like many, talk of picks and the Final Four will be everywhere.

USA Today sports analyst Danny Sheridan estimates that $6 billion will be wagered illegally on the NCAA basketball tournament, making it the fourth largest sports betting event. A fair amount of that $6 billion will be bet on office pools—usually just a few bucks at a time.

While work pools are a lot of fun, they also can present some risk for employers. Anti-gambling groups often urge employers not to sanction office pools.

Should employers be concerned about office pools and the bigger issue of gambling in the workplace?

Bet on a few problems

Most office pools don’t significantly disrupt the workplace or have a major impact on productivity. However, they can get out of hand.

Sports gambling, especially on college sports, is illegal in almost every state. Although employers that look the other way when a pool circulates don’t face a great risk of criminal charges, managers shouldn’t officially sanction gambling pools. Keep the amounts wagered low. Remind employees not to use company Internet resources.

Consider having a written policy regarding workplace gambling to prevent things from getting out of control. The policy should define gambling, prohibited behavior and 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. For example, someone whose religious beliefs prohibit gambling could easily bring a hostile work environment suit if co-workers ridicule him or her for refusing to participate in a pool.

Handle those complaints 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 most employees, March Madness is an exciting time and doesn’t cause any problems. However, 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. The National Council on Problem Gambling offers resources (see box below).

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, such as Gamblers Anonymous.


Author: Maureen Q. Dwyer is an associate in the Labor and Employment Group of Pepper Hamilton in its Philadelphia office. She defends employers in claims involving discrimination and sexual harassment. Contact Maureen at (215) 981-4149 or dwyerm@pepperlaw.com.

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