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March Madness: When a Friendly Bracket Becomes an HR Problem

March 15, 2019
Several worrisome workplace trends are emerging, as states relax sports gambling laws.

Next week marks the start of the first March Madness season since a landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling gave states leeway to allow and regulate sports gambling. Many state legislatures are already jumping at what they consider an untapped revenue opportunity. For their part, manufacturers and other businesses owners are not all exactly jumping for joy—as they see a newly increased risk of overzealous participants and gamblers disrupting the workplace during March Madness.

Several potentially worrisome trends are already emerging and our group is already seeing an unusual increase in pre-tourney client calls from manufacturers for training and messaging assistance in three areas:

• Help reminding those in management that office money pools remain legally risky. The Supreme Court justices did not suddenly authorize unlimited office pools with unlimited cash prizes. They gave the states the ability (for now) to decide how to regulate sports betting. One client called us a few days ago after hearing several employees planned to dramatically raise the 2019 pool stakes and even to take a cut, all because they recalled reading somewhere on social media that they now had a green light to do so—courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court. Irrespective of any state or federal gambling laws, office pools can also create discrimination risks if unwilling or uncomfortable employees are pressured to “pony-up."

• Limiting employee lunch/break trips to betting establishments ("sports books"), newly opened since the Court's decision. In New Jersey and several other states, a number of manufacturers reported already seeing impromptu "betting and beer runs" by groups of employees before second and third shifts, with more planned for March.

Keeping an eye out for addictive behavior. Perhaps most worrisome, some businesses are coming to us notably concerned that increased gambling addiction rates will impact the workplace, given a perceived green light from the Supreme Court to wager more, not less. Over the last four weeks, our group has already experienced a 15% uptick in client requests to include possible "employee gambling addiction"-type warning signs in planned workplace management trainings. (These signs, not surprisingly, include excessive interest in betting pools.)

Tips to Take into the Tourney

In a factory setting, and given the above, be aware of and ready to respond to the following:

1. Manager/company-run betting pools. A gambling charge may be practically unlikely—but would be awfully unpleasant. If you really need to host a pool, prizes should be limited to smallish swag, such as company-logo wear, or a prominently displayed “Factory Floor Madness Champion” photo.

 2. MIA team members, lost to the madness. Keep an extra eye on attendance and productivity. If space permits, set-up a “Break, Bracket and Bagel" area, so employees are less likely to hit the local bar before their shifts (where they may end up binging on more than just the tournament...). Also, watch for those overly engaged in and distracted by the tourney, such that it affects their performance.

 3. Tournament trash talk on the floor. Even the most innocent dissing about a regional rivalry can easily morph into full-on political debate or insults—especially in today’s climate. Train supervisors to appropriately step in at the first sign of staff members mouthing-off in March.

4. Mandatory madness. Managers should never force their employees to participate. Even "strong encouragement" by an authority figure will annoy uninterested employees; at worst, it can lead to legal challenges from those with religious or other objections.

Philippe Weiss, Esq., is president, Seyfarth Shaw at Work.

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