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The Ethics of Office Gambling

It doesn't matter who you're rooting for in the Super Bowl. It's a bad bet to gamble in the workplace

Late on Sunday night, Feb. 3, men and women across the country will find out whether they won money in their office Super Bowl pool. Those who lose will have a chance to recoup their cash in pools for the Academy Awards, the World Series, and perhaps even the Presidential election. For every season, there is a chance to bet and win at the office, and the winnings can be as high as five figures.

Office pools involving cash are common, exciting, and potentially lucrative. But they can violate corporate policies and the law. Even where they are legal and not in violation of company protocol, however, they are wrong, and we ought not to participate in them.

Here's why.

The Fundamentals

As readers of this column know by now, arguments about ethics are not entirely dependent on what the law, public policy, and corporate rules and regulations happen to be. An action can be legal but wrong, or it can be illegal but ethically required. One would like to believe that laws, regulations, and policies are always based on what is right, but we know that too often they are shaped by special interests, outdated beliefs, or pure and simple prejudice. For any law or policy, we can and should ask: "Is it right? Is it fair? Is it just?"

This is not a call to civil disobedience, however. The law is an important first step in deciding what we should do and why we should do it. For example, we are legally required to file a federal tax return each year, so anyone who wishes to be a citizen in good standing (or at least not to become a member of the prison population) wisely chooses to pay his or her taxes. For all of the problems in the legal system, it is hard to imagine that a civilized society could survive for long without laws and the serious consequences of failing to honor them.

When examining the propriety of office pools, it is thus important to look at the relevant law. Before doing so, I must emphasize that I am not an attorney, and nothing in this column, or anything else I've ever written, should be considered legal advice. Based on my research, however, I have discovered the legality of office pools in which employees bet cash on professional sports teams varies from state to state. In other words, in some states, office pools are illegal. Yes, it is true that these laws are rarely enforced, and yes, it makes sense for police to investigate homicides, bank robberies, sexual assaults, and other serious crimes before they pursue rumors that employees in the local coffee shop are betting on the Giants over the Patriots.

But before you conclude that office pools have few legal consequences, consider this: Some employees, including those at the management level, have been fired (and in at least one case, arrested) for participating in these games, on the grounds the practice was either illegal or in violation of company policy.

Because participants in office pools risk violating the law, the rules has agreed to when accepting one's job, or both, these games are of questionable value. But this isn't the main reason we shouldn't place bets at work.

The High Cost of Low Living

My argument that it is wrong to participate in office pools is not based on the ethics of gambling as such. I believe that in the right social setting, gambling is a fun way to spend some time and, one hopes, not too much money (provided one does not have an addiction to gambling). When I'm in Las Vegas—to give talks on, of all things, ethics—I usually make time for the roulette tables. Yes, roulette has terrible odds, but I like the quiet atmosphere, the fact that there is absolutely no skill involved, and of course, the free drinks.

The office, however, simply isn't an appropriate place for gambling. It's called a workplace for a reason: It's the place where we're supposed to work. Things that interfere with doing our job should be done before or after work. The same goes for talking politics at work (, 1/15/08), having sex, drinking single malt whisky, surfing the Web for bargains, or yakking with friends on our cell phones.

The issue isn't whether a particular activity is high- or lowbrow or how much time it takes away from your work. If you're on the job, it's just as wrong to spend two hours debating the Cartesian mind-body distinction as it is to watch Jenna Jameson videos for 20 minutes. Whether either activity is your cup of tea is up to you; what isn't up for grabs is the propriety of doing either at work.

Misguided Justifications

"Office pools build morale and camaraderie." Next to the thrill of winning, this is the most popular justification for office pools. "Companies are fighting like mad to bring people together, and office pools are a great way to stimulate watercooler conversations," said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, to The Business Review in Albany, N.Y., in 2002. But there are lots of stimulating things to talk about that just don't belong at work.

And let's face it: Right or wrong, who we want to win a football game is even more important to some of us than are our political beliefs or religious convictions, and the arguments surrounding these games can get out of hand. It's one thing to have a heated discussion about a project on which you and a colleague are working. It's quite another to have such an argument about something that has nothing to do with one's job.

"It's harmless fun." At the beginning of football season, we kick in a few dollars, then follow our team over the coming weeks and months. Most of us lose. A few of us win. What's the harm in that? Even if there happens to be no legal or policy issues at stake, the harm has to do with how stakeholders would view the business if on-the-job gambling activities were revealed. "If the stakes are high, the result of the pool could create disharmony in the workplace, and the problems could escalate," says employment law expert B. David Joffe of the law firm Boult, Cummings, Conners & Berry.

If even a small percentage of customers, board members, and shareholders is likely to be troubled by the practice of on-site betting, that alone is sufficient cause for concern. Some stakeholders may have religious objections to it. Others might be concerned that employees will not give their full attention to their work. A third group may simply view gambling on the job as unseemly. Whatever the objections are, they deserve to be taken seriously.

"The CEO allows or encourages it." This is, quite frankly, a cop-out. The fact that the head of an organization sanctions a practice says little or nothing about whether the practice is justifiable or not. After all, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron thought it was perfectly fine to play with employee pension funds as if they were Monopoly money, but no one today is saying that their leadership roles made what they did O.K. When David Frost asked former President Richard Nixon in 1977 if it is acceptable for a President to do something illegal, Nixon replied, "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal." Nixon was mistaken, and so is any corporate leader who believes that "if I say it's all right, then it must be all right."

Bottom line: Some companies allow or encourage office pools, and perhaps they always will. But they shouldn't, and if they take a few moments to reflect on the real risks that these activities pose, the smart ones won't.

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