PORTLAND, Maine — It’s that time of year again — March Madness, when every workplace in America becomes a mini-Vegas, where what happens in the cubicle stays in the cubicle.
The signs are all clear. Bracket sheets replace spreadsheets. Streamed NCAA games, instead of videoconferencing, take up bandwidth. Cheers come from three-pointers rather than new sales.
But is it all legal? And, by “all,” what we really mean is “the office pools and gambling.”
Well, no, said Jon Shapiro, employment law attorney and managing partner at Fisher & Phillips in Portland.
“It is illegal gambling if money is at stake; and companies get worried when it’s on a broader scale,” said Shapiro, who has written extensively on March Madness and the impact — both good and bad — on the workplace.
In most cases, where there’s a small office pool going on, it’s typically “no harm, no foul,” Shapiro said. The local police normally won’t even hear about the pool, and if they do, won’t really care, he said.
Every year, however, he and his colleagues start fielding calls from employers worried about gambling in their workplace.
Some companies wonder, “Would it be better if we officially organized the pool, called it the Acme Corp. Pool, for example, and have our managers run it?”
Others question the drain on workplace productivity or the use of computer resources, including bandwidth, to not only check out brackets but also watch games online.
Some ask about banning March Madness at work entirely, Shapiro said.
Shapiro, a graduate of Duke University’s law school who has effectively (and admittedly) brainwashed his two kids into Blue Devil devotees, doesn’t advise that.
“The benefits of these pools in terms of morale cannot be overstated. In some places, it’s the most exciting thing that happens all year,” Shapiro said. “Do you really want to squash this by banning pools in the workplace?”
As an alternative, Shapiro offers some advice.
First, don’t have the pool sanctioned; don’t officially call it the Acme Corp. March Madness Monetary Melee. Let it run unofficially to give the company plausible deniability. Don’t have supervisors or managers actively involved in the pool, either.
Second, don’t let employees pressure anyone to join the pool. That’s key, said Shapiro.
“You just don’t know what buttons you’re going to press,” he said.
He likened the workplace to the current politically polarized country. There can be people on all sides in your workplace — those who look forward to March Madness all year and love the pools to those who couldn’t care less and think gambling is an immoral abomination — and illegal, to boot.
You don’t want anyone to feel pressured or uncomfortable, Shapiro said. If they complain about the pool, they easily could have whistle-blower status, he said. And, should they get a bad review six months later, you could have the makings of a claim.
They may charge they’re being discriminated against due to their complaint and, even if there’s no basis to it, the company still will have to spend time and money to argue a case before a board.
If an employer has a real problem with the gambling aspect of March Madness, there are creative ways to allow pools but take the money out of it. Maybe you can run the same pool, but donate any winnings to charity, which would be legal. Or let the winning player park in the boss’ parking spot or eat in the executive dining room for a week.
“Every company’s got their own things that people think are important — a perk — with no money changing hands,” he said.
If there’s concern over the Internet bandwidth being taken up, Shapiro said, companies should consider tuning in a TV in a conference room or lunch room to the games on Thursday and Friday. Be clear, he said, that you still expect employees to get all their work done. But they’re adults, he said, and should be able to handle watching parts of the tournament during lunch or coffee breaks while still getting work done.
The tournament is something that all can enjoy, regardless of socioeconomic differences, Shapiro suggested. He remembers watching March Madness games at his first job in a big Washington, D.C., law firm.
Some of the top lawyers in the nation were arguing about the teams and games with mail room clerks.
“This is an issue that I think really helps break down barriers,” he said. “What other issue brings people together like this?”