The unusual way your staff may be breaking the law this week

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Now that March is in full swing, its eponymous madness has set in, and many office workers will be raking in money from a friendly bet or two. About one in eight women and one in four men have participated in March Madness office pools in the past, and one in ten workers are getting involved this year, according to a CareerBuilder poll.

But whether they’re actually legal is another matter altogether. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nevada is the only state that permits wagering on NCAA sports, and in other states, like New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, office pools involving money are illegal. And workers on government-owned property are also prohibited from gambling under federal regulations. However, lawsuits involving office pools are generally few and far-between: the last notable one was 22 years ago in Rhode Island, when the state police arrested two people for a $5 office pool.

In other states, such as Texas, the activity is legal under certain circumstances.

“The answer lies in the legal meaning of 'bet',” Tony Campiti, an attorney based in Dallas. “As long as employees don't have to pay an entry fee to participate, the contests shouldn't involve illegal 'betting,' at least under Texas law.”

Should you ban workers from participating in their own pools? That’s what the federal government has had to do. But at DISH, there’s a policy that specifically encourages staff to get involved.

Despite admitting that the madness may cause a loss of productivity, Challenger, Gray and Christmas CEO John Challenger says banning the pastime may have the opposite of the desired effect.

“Department managers may notice that their workers are more distracted and the IT department may notice the loss of bandwidth. However, at the end of the day, it is unlikely that a few days of March Madness distraction will impact the company’s bottom line,” he says. “Taking a hardline on office pools and online streaming, on the other hand, could have a dramatic impact on the bottom line, if it leads to increased turnover or causes employees to become disengaged.”

It seems many HR professionals agree with Challenger, since a February poll by the Society for Human Resource Management showed 70% agreed March Madness had a positive impact on relationship building in the office, and more than half said it boosted employee engagement.

Ways to curb loss of productivity in March

Promote a company-sanctioned pool If it’s legal in your state, this may be a good way to ensure not too much time is lost to the madness. “Promoting a company-wide office pool that is free to enter,” says Challenger, “could help boost camaraderie and encourage interaction among co-workers who may not typically cross paths. Relax dress codes and allow workers to wear sweatshirts and t-shirts in support of their favorite team.” Campiti also offered legal advice, saying: “Because office-sanctioned pools that involve pay-for-play would appear to violate state law, a safer course is not to require anything of value to participate even though distributing prizes to the winners would be OK.”

Serve lunch to prevent absences It’s not uncommon to hear stories of workers skipping out after lunch, when games begin on the east coast. By serving a catered lunch, the company may be able to stop workers from leaving the office for a long lunch beside the pub television.

Have televisions streaming games It sounds counter-productive, but by having televisions around the office to keep workers in the know, it may prevent them from streaming games at their desks, Challenger says.

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