Is Gambling at Work Legal?

If you’re going to succeed in HR, you’ll need a good poker face. Unfortunately, it's a safe bet that you won't be the only one sitting at the table. 

While it might lack the glitz and glamor of a Vegas casino, your workplace has likely seen its fair share of gambling. From lottery pools to sports bracket challenges, seemingly innocent wagers can carry big risks. Gambling remains highly regulated in most states and flat-out prohibited in others. Beyond legality, there are ethical questions to consider, too.

In this casino, your HR department is the closest thing to “the house.” Here are some tips to keep workplace gambling in check and ensure the house always wins.

Is No Policy the Best Policy?  

When it comes to dicey issues, having robust company policies in place can sometimes give HR professionals an edge. That said, labor attorneys and employers have generally refrained from mentioning gambling in their employee handbooks. According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), only 20 percent of companies have gambling policies in place.

In stark contrast, over two-thirds of Americans have bought a lottery ticket, visited a casino, or placed a sports bet in the last year.

Worried that your March Madness pool could be shut down by the FBI? Given the sheer volume, that risk is minimal—hence why so few employee handbooks address it. Even so, you should work with employment counsel to determine whether having a policy makes sense for your organization. If your company serves the public sector or is dependent on taxpayer resources, it could be worthwhile to write a policy that takes a hardline stance against gambling.

In some cases, a hard line stance might do more harm than good.

Last but not least, remember that neither company leaders nor HR team members should be the ones starting, managing, or participating in betting pools. That’s doubly true in cases where employees have decided to share lottery tickets, as fights over jackpot winnings can be
disruptive and lead to nasty legal battles. As representatives of the organization, HR’s open participation creates liability risks in the unlikely case that investigators do come knocking.

And while it should go without saying, neither you nor the office pool’s organizers should get a “a cut” of employee bets. Sorry, aspiring bookies—no dice this time.

Breaking Even on Sports Betting

Productivity can take a hit during high-profile sporting events like the Super Bowl and March Madness. One industry study found that the latter costs companies over $6 billion in lost productivity each year. Between building brackets, setting up office pools, and streaming live games on company time, the college basketball tournament is the third biggest office distraction overall, ranking just behind texting and social media.

March Madness brackets can eat up productivity
For better or worse, sports betting has become a part of American culture, with states like New Jersey going as far as to legalize it. When it comes to accepting the inevitable but keeping productivity up, HR needs to play its cards right. In lieu of taking a hard line, use these shared experiences to your advantage. Consider broadcasting live games in a break room or other common space. Dress code permitting, you might even encourage employees to wear their college team jerseys. Doing so could inspire some light-hearted banter and keep employees engaged and motivated. As an additional benefit, holding these informal get togethers effectively discourages employees from watching alone at their desks, which just amounts to lost productivity (and server bandwidth) with no additional gains.

Lastly, if a colleague organizes an office pool or bracket challenge, make sure that the “buy-in” is a small, reasonable amount. An OfficePulse survey found that over two-thirds of employee buy-ins are between $10 to $20. Any more than that, you risk trouble—and the last thing HR needs is to act as referee in a sports betting dispute.

When to Intervene

Should you just adopt a laissez-faire approach and let the chips fall where they may? While that might work in some instances, there are a select few situations when HR teams will need to take decisive action.

As mentioned earlier, buy-ins should remain low to keep the spirit of the competition lighthearted. In the same vein, participation should be extended to everyone—not just a select clique or demographic. While inclusivity is important, employees shouldn’t feel pressured or coerced into participating. Individuals may have religious objections to the competition or be recovering from a past gambling addiction.

Lastly, if it’s your company’s busy season or if you’ve noticed a sizable drop in productivity, you should be comfortable reminding staff to keep their eye on the ball (besides the one that’s in play) via email or your company newsfeed. That’s especially true if you’ve already made accommodations like holding watch parties or organizing school spirit days.

As the song goes, when it comes to workplace gambling you need to know "when to hold them and when to fold them." In most cases, cracking down on innocent wagers won’t do your HR department’s reputation any favors. That said, when the stakes are high and innocent fun transitions to ill will, HR needs to double down its responsibility to ensure employees remain productive and on their best behavior. 

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