Is the office the right place to place your bets?

Office Super Bowl pools and March Madness brackets are fun but not exactly legal. What do you need to know before hosting them?
2 10 22 Officegambling Panel

Super Bowl Sunday is just around the corner, and if your workplace is like many, there’s a good chance you may be closely watching the score to see if you’ll come up a winner in the office football squares pool. It probably seems like harmless fun and a great way to build camaraderie with a little friendly competition but be warned: your office pool is probably illegal.

That’s not to say law enforcement will be breaking down any doors to bust up your tiny gambling ring, but employers and employees should know the risks of what they’re doing.

Several federal laws prohibit wagers on sporting events, and the actions become much riskier if workers place bets across state lines. But the odds of federal enforcement action against low-end office pools are minimal.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, March Madness brackets and Super Bowl ​boards in which participants pay for the chance to win money or other prizes dependent upon the outcome of the game(s) are illegal gambling and unlawful under Wisconsin statutes. The only legal gambling allowed by statute in Wisconsin are charitable raffle and bingos conducted by licensed organizations, tribal casinos, pull tabs, and the Wisconsin lottery.

Numerous states currently have exemptions to their laws that permit some form of betting pools. The general rule in these states allows “social” gambling, which includes the organizer not keeping a portion of the pool money and instead paying out all the money in winnings, the pool being limited to people who all the participants know, and the dollar levels remaining relatively low.

If your workplace sets up a small betting pool where participants “buy a square” or otherwise place wagers on various aspects of the game, sometimes encouraged or even organized by management, you’re not alone, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). An estimated 54 million Americans join betting pools each year, many of them at the workplace. But you still might wonder what the risks are from a legal perspective. The short answer? It’s probably not very risky from a legal perspective, but it could lead to other problems.

Rather than worrying about getting raided by police officers, you should be concerned about the kinds of problems that can befall a workplace when large amounts of cash are floating through the building. Theft is always a concern, and missing money can lead to hard feelings and accusations that could poison interpersonal dynamics. The same holds true for those workers who don’t react well to losing (or who think they were somehow cheated); seeing someone they work side-by-side with profit while they have an empty wallet could lead to toxic discord in the workplace.

SHRM recommends a gambling-in-the-workplace policy but notes the best way to steer clear of any issues is for the employer to establish a voluntary workplace pool that requires no entrance fee and awards prizes with company funds, turning what could be a problematic event into a morale booster.

A formal workplace gambling policy should include the following:

  • The policy should describe the type of gambling that is allowed. If gambling is limited to March Madness brackets, the policy should expressly say so. If, however, an employer wishes to allow for fantasy leagues, Oscars pools, Super Bowl pools, etc., the employer should take the time to make sure all allowed workplace gambling is included in the policy;
  • The policy should require that the specific type of gambling being done in the workplace be approved by human resources to ensure it fits within the legal requirements set forth above;
  • The policy should define if and how the employer’s property can be used to engage in the workplace gambling. For example, if workplace televisions, copiers, computers, email, etc. are not allowed to be used for such activities, the policy should expressly say so. If they are, the policy should clearly communicate policies regarding employee breaks, email, and internet use so employees know what is acceptable;
  • The policy should inform employees that the gambling activities cannot interfere with production or work;
  • The policy should outline the employer’s complaint procedure in the event there is an issue; and
  • The policy should outline the discipline that may be lodged against an employee in the event of a policy violation.

As a bonus, with respect to Super Bowl betting, the policy should require employees: (1) prohibit employees from participating in betting across multiple states; (2) prohibit employees from using company equipment, including email or copiers as part of this practice; (3) limit entry fees to $20 or less; and (4) ensure all winnings go to the winner or a charitable organization.

The bottom line?

“Games of chance are prohibited by Wisconsin law but prosecuting such crimes doesn’t appear to be a high priority for municipal or state authorities,” says Danielle B. Tierney, a partner at Axley Brynelson in Madison. “Many office pools may fall just outside the statutory definition of gambling as long as employees can make an argument that the contest is dependent on skill rather than luck. While pools may be a source of camaraderie and good cheer around the office, employees who participate in them should be wary of Wisconsin law and — perhaps more important — company policies.”

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