Should you participate in a NCAA basketball pool at work?

Legal and other arguments on both sides.

Should You Participate in a March Madness Pool at Work?

It’s that time of year again — your coworker in accounting stops by your cube with a photocopied bracket and wants to know if you’re in. Five bucks and some lucky guesses later, you’ve got your entry into the latest office basketball pool.

The yearly NCAA championship basketball pool can be a lot of fun, boost camaraderie and provide some bragging rights. But the question is: should you participate in one at work?

One important thing to remember is that the pool may not be legal. “The legality of office betting pools will depend on state law, but most of them are probably illegal,” says Donna Ballman, an employee-side employment lawyer and author of “Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired.” Whether the pool is legal or not may come down to a technicality — such as the amount required to participate — and it’s rare that anyone is prosecuted. It may be more important to figure whether pools are allowed under your company’s policies.

“That being said, office pools can be fun and build camaraderie if they’re done for small amounts of money and are run fairly,” Ballman says.

Companies should “loosen their collars” when it comes to fun activities such as participating in the pools, says Halley Bock, CEO and president of development and training company Fierce Inc.

Bock says extracurricular activities such as office pools can help people “build relationships by giving employees the chance to compete and discuss topics other than those dealing with day-to-day office life.” After a long winter, excitement about the games can rejuvenate the office by infusing a bit of fun into the workday, she says.

Also activities such as office pools can “mix up the leadership dynamic and level the playing field when managers and employees compete against one another as peers,” Bock says.  By enhancing work culture and breaking down barriers, these activities can help organizations boost employee engagement while remaining work appropriate.

Still, it’s important to remember things can turn a little sour if the pool goes wrong, Ballman says. “They can lead to bad feelings, arguments and even fistfights if there’s a perception that the pool was not honestly run.”

There are other legal issues to keep in mind, as well, Ballman says. For example, if your co-workers belong to religions that don’t allow gambling, they shouldn’t be pressured. “The peer pressure to participate can be enormous,” she says, and can turn into harassment or discrimination. Also, if someone objects to the pool because of legal issues and is fired or harassed because of the objection, “this could be whistleblower retaliation,” Ballman says. Other pools, such as those predicting babies’ due dates or when a cast might come off, can be fodder for pregnancy or disability discrimination, or get into HIPAA issues, Ballman says. “In general, keep betting pools fun, inexpensive, and impersonal and they’re probably fine,” she says. “When in doubt, shut it down.” Have you participated in an NCAA basketball office pool at work in the past? Are you participating in one this year?
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