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March Madness - Bad Bet For Employers

Ah … It's a magical time of year! Employees come to work and spend their days filling out brackets, entering the office pool, streaming games online, checking scores on the Internet, posting on Social Media and talking about basketball! It is a month-long employer paid holiday. Who doesn't love March Madness?

Actually, lack of employee productivity (estimated at $1.2 billion during the first week of the NCAA tournament alone) is the least of an employer's worries. If money changes hands, even for a simple friendly office pool, it can be illegal gambling. 

Depending upon your policies and enforcement of those policies, you can be deemed to be a "bookmaker" and subjected to criminal prosecution. If convicted, you could then be fined up to $125,000 for each offense.

Oregon gambling laws (and the laws of other states) are quite clear. Office pools and tournament brackets are illegal gambling if money changes hands.

You may think "I am not involved in promoting the office pool so we are okay." That would be wrong.

If you allow an office pool among your employees, on your premises, during work time, you could be at risk. That risk is even greater if your supervisors are involved in promoting the pool. Actions on your premises, and certainly actions involving your supervisors, can be attributed to you the employer.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that no problems could result from your friendly office activities. Employees that are happy today, can become disgruntled in the future. They can and have complained to the state about office pools. Some employees seem to  always be using the system to make trouble for their employers. Others can seek revenge for termination or some other perceived slight. Still others, if they feel like they have been pressured into participating, can call the state to complain. Any of these employees can cause you serious problems.

Complaints can also come, not from employees, but from an employee's family. When there is a gambling addiction problem, family members can blame those that they perceive enabled their loved one's addiction. Or, they may believe that if their loved one's employer is investigated, maybe the loved one will get help.

The state usually does not go out of its way to investigate and prosecute office pools. It does, however, respond to complaints. This puts you as an employer at risk. 

The biggest risk may be from civil lawsuits brought by the family members mentioned above. They can assert that the office pool or bracket enabled their loved one's addiction or made it worse. They then could seek damages for money lost (all of the money lost though gambling - not just the amount that may have been lost in your office pool) and seek additional money for damage to the family.

Like seemingly most things in life, what should be a fun, camaraderie building activity can result in unexpected complaints and liabilities.

March Madness is a bad bet for employers. There are things you can do, however, to improve your odds.

Do: Do meet with your managers and supervisors before the March tournaments begin to discuss issues related to office pools and brackets.

Do: Do let your managers know the risks they face.

Don't: Don't allow your supervisors to participate in any pools at your organization. If they want to fill out brackets, they should do so in another place that does not involve your employees.

Do: Do have your managers manage your employees. If work suffers because of an employee's focus on tournaments, your managers need to take appropriate corrective action.

Don't: Don't let your employees stream videos online, check websites or use Social Media during working hours to track or comment on tournament activity.

Do: Do remind employees that they are not to gamble during company time or use company computers, Wi-Fi or Internet service to place bets.

Do: Do let employees know there are services available to them if they suspect they have a gambling problem.

Don't: Don't allow pools where the person organizing the pool keeps a portion of the pool (this could result in that person or your organization being classified as a "bookmaker" under Oregon statutes).

Don't: Don't let the person organizing the pool win the pool (this could also result in the organizer or your organization being classified as a “bookmaker"). The organizer must not be a participant.

Do: Do consider requiring that the payoff for office pool winners be donated to a charity in the winner's name.

Do: Do remind employees that if they go to an off site bar for lunch to watch games, they must not drink at the bar if they will be returning to work.

Make your policies known. Write them down and share them with your managers, supervisors and employees. And train your supervisors on your expectations during tournament season.

Follow these tips and you could improve your organization's odds during March Madness.

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