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It’s College Bowl — and Office Pool — Season

by John Husband

Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. ~ Vince Lombardi

I understand what it means to be an avid college football fan. In my earlier days, I was fortunate to be on three Big Ten Conference championship football teams at The Ohio State University. During my days at Ohio State we also went to three Rose Bowls so I know first hand how exciting the bowls can be. I understand why many college football fans will enter into office pools this bowl season.

As an employment law attorney, however, my responsibility is to counsel employers regarding the possible consequences of authorized, or overlooked, gambling in the workplace. In doing so, I have found that some of the lessons I learned on the gridiron translate to the workplace.

The best offense is a good defense
Know the risks that office gambling can create. Office pools represent illegal gambling in many states. That isn’t true in all states. In Colorado for example, office sport pools are an exception to the definition of illegal gambling. If you have employees in multiple states, however, you should consider whether you’re unwittingly condoning illegal behavior and whether a companywide policy related to gambling should be revisited and revised.

Additionally, office pools may be competitors to productivity in the workplace. Surveys show that 79 percent of employees participated in office betting pools this year – up from 67 percent last year. Employees participating in office pools take time to research their picks, watch or follow games on the computer at work, and converse with their coworkers about the pool, the games, and the teams. Some employees even call in sick to watch or attend a sports event.

You also should consider your employees with current or former gambling addictions. Addicted gamblers have claimed that office pools caused relapses in their treatment, and employees with gambling addictions can cause disruption in the workplace if they borrow money from coworkers or require absence from work for treatment.

Study the playbook
The employee handbook is the playbook of the workplace, and you should have clear policies outlining acceptable and/or prohibited behavior regarding employee gambling. Fifty percent of employees say their employer doesn’t have a policy regarding employee gambling.

If you decide to prohibit or restrict employee gambling, your policy should define the type of behavior prohibited, state that some gambling is illegal, and indicate that gambling can interfere with employee productivity. The policy also should state that employees can be disciplined for violating the policy.

Audit your policies and practices with the Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook

Hold the line
In football, each member of the offensive or defensive line is crucial to advancing the team. Similarly, in the workplace, policies must be enforced evenly across the board, or employers will be exposed to civil liability. Inconsistent enforcement or discipline related to workplace gambling has lead to litigation.

Keep your eye on the ball
Be vigilant. Recent surveys suggest that employers are still slow to adopt computer use policies. Fifty percent of employees responding to a recent survey spent more than 10 percent of their time at work surfing the Web for personal reasons – with a significant percentage of those personal reasons relating to sports and gaming. Unmonitored computer gaming can lead to costly results in the form of problems such as computer viruses, purposeful or inadvertent exposure to pornography and disclosure of trade secrets.

There’s no “i” in “team”
As with many aspects of employment law, there is no clear-cut rule regarding workplace gambling that will fit every company and every situation. Office pools, Oscar pools, and group lottery tickets often constitute significant ways that managers build camaraderie and teamwork and relieve employee stress.

According to a July 2007 national survey, 94 percent of full-time employees believe their stress level affects job performance and 36.2 percent said stress affects their productivity. When it comes to workplace games, you must balance the desire to promote employee job satisfaction with the associated legal risks.

John Husband is a senior partner with Holland & Hart and practices labor and employment law in the firm’s Denver, Colorado office. You can contact him at (303) 295-8000.

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