Organizing or placing bets in a workplace Super Bowl pool this year? Business owners may want to think twice before checking off a few boxes and throwing in a $20.
Employment attorneys say that while such gambling pools can foster fun and camaraderie amongst staff members, they are often more trouble than they're worth, and in some cases even unlawful.
Diane Pfadenhauer, president of Employment Practices Advisors, said that at many large corporations these types of betting pools are often illegal. However at smaller companies, the boundaries for such activities become murky. It is the responsibility of the owner to have a clearly executed policy on solicitation in the office, and to ensure managers are well-versed in it.
"It all depends on how effectively managers communicate those policies," Pfadenhauer said. "While there are positive employee [outcomes] from getting people together and rooting for a team, you end up going down this long ugly road. I'd like to think we can play like adults, but it all ends up on the back of the employer."
Things can get ugly if staffers are left out of the pool, money gets stolen, or debts go unpaid, she said. The first person employees will come complaining to is the boss—regardless of whether you gave the pool your blessing before it got started.
This creates an employee-relations problem. It can also be a major office distraction, Pfadenhauer said.
"Employees may think, 'Why is Carl walking around with the spreadsheet while I am sitting here working?'" she said. "Employers also say they wish their workers would spend as much time and energy focused on work instead of making these beautiful Super Bowl spreadsheets."
Another area of concern is with union laws, Pfadenhauer said. The National Labor Relations Board permits people to unionize in the workplace, and any individual can collectively form a union together in the business. Problems arise when employees are permitted to solicit other employees, she said.
If a worker is allowed to walk around freely soliciting their co-workers to participate in a betting pool, or to purchase Girl Scout cookies, this will make it easier to have employees solicit other workers to join unions.
"Most people don't know the origin of these policies," Pfadenhauer said. "They will say 'Why do you care about selling Girl Scout cookies?' But if an employer has a strict policy that is stringently applied to prevent Girl Scout cookie [selling], or Super Bowl betting, they can prevent or limit the ability of a union organizer to solicit in the workplace."
While these pools may seem fun and harmless, Pfadenhauer said it's important to stop them before they get out of hand, or something goes wrong at the expense of your business.
"Most of the Western hemisphere would view this as a harmless bonding thing, it's one of those things that make HR people very unpopular," she said. "There are a whole host of ethical issues associated with compliance and organizations."