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Ask the Hotline | How Do We Address Workplace Gambling?

February 26, 2019
Q. March Madness is around the corner. Workplace gambling is a banned activity per our handbook, but sometimes it seems like half of the workers, including supervisors and managers, are talking about it or walking around with the basketball betting cards. It’s driving me nuts. What can I do about it? 
A. Late winter and early spring is high workplace gambling season. College basketball’s March Madness playoff brackets mean many workers will be talking about, gambling on, and even watching the games at work. 
What does workplace gambling look like? Betting pools, on-line betting, cell phone calls, and texting are some of the common methods employees use to gamble during the workday. All this may lead to a significant reduction in job performance by some employees. 
On the other hand, many employers regard employee gambling as a harmless distraction that creates a little excitement, a diversion from the humdrum of the long winter and workday routines. Most employees treat it as a lark that, win or lose, will not impact them very much. In most workplaces the single-pool proceeds are relatively small dollars, ranging anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to perhaps a few thousand.  
That said, workplace gambling is a big deal and likely to get bigger. The American Gaming Association estimates that employees may bet up to $10 billion alone on the college basketball tournament. And by the way, sports betting remains illegal in Massachusetts. 
Didn’t the Supreme Court make gambling on sports legal?
Yes and no. The Court struck down a federal law banning sports gambling in states outside of Nevada, where it’s been legal since 1949. The Court’s decision means that states must affirmatively act to legalize it. Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania have done just that. Other states, including Massachusetts, are considering legislation to legalize it.  
If you are concerned about workplace gambling or feel that your current policies are insufficient, here are some questions to consider:  
  1. Does gambling disrupt the workplace? Is the gambling behavior interfering with production? Are arguments between employees over games and gambling taking place? Is bad blood festering over unpaid debts? Is there a spike in wallet or purse thefts among co-workers? 
  2. Are you seeing betting take up an unreasonable amount of work time? Are workers leaving their workstations throughout the day to discuss gambling? Are they gathering during work time to discuss betting options?
  3. Are gambling employees asking co-workers or the company for loans on wages or from 401K’s, or are there delays in repaying debts? 
  4. Are your supervisors running the gambling pool, raising disparate treatment issues across the business?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may want to consider establishing a gambling policy.
There are a number of options:
  1. Adopt a no-gambling policy. Define gambling or the type of behavior that is restricted. Employers are free to establish such a policy. The key factor, as always, will be how consistently will it be enforced by your supervisors. 
  2. Determine what constitutes appropriate disciplinary action against any employee who violates the policy. 
  3. Consider adopting a limited no-gambling policy. One method would be to prohibit gambling above a certain dollar figure or value. Such a policy would recognize that small-stakes gambling such as a few dollars or a lunch is reasonable and will be tolerated even though it remains illegal under state law. The problem - will employees disclose they are doing it? There is also the question of determining what is a reasonable dollar value threshold and how to enforce it.
  4. Establish a clear definition of what is acceptable and unacceptable gambling. While perhaps easy to define, this has similar enforcement problems as number three above. 
While it is unlikely any company would face any serious civil or criminal liability for a small-time gambling pool, if its operation makes some employees feel uncomfortable, it may make sense to end the practice as soon as you become aware of it, or before it gets going.  Whatever policy you choose to adopt, make sure it is one that is enforceable for your workplace. If you are interested in establishing a gambling policy, please contact the AIM Employer Hotline for assistance. 
Finally, if you have employees with a gambling problem, you may refer them to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for assistance. If you do not have an EAP that offers this service, the following programs may be helpful. 
AIM offers public and on-site supervisory education programs for your front-line supervisors.  Call the Employer Hotline today to learn more at 800.470.6277.
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