Should Workplaces Ban Lotteries?

Should workplaces ban lottery pools? Lots of offices feature “pools” of various kinds, with groups of employees joining together collaboratively or competitively to speculate on, e.g., the outcome of the NFL playoffs. Very likely lots of managers regard it all as harmless fun, boosting morale by giving employees a break from the tedium of their cubicle farms. But a lottery pool is unlike, say, a hockey or football pool. In a hockey or football pool, there are winners and losers, but typically the dollar amounts are pretty small. But when employees band together to buy lottery tickets, the possibility is there for all hell to break loose.

To see what I mean, take a look at this story, from the CBC: More claiming share of $50M lottery prize

Some of the claimants to the disputed $50-million Lotto Max jackpot were at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming prize centre on Wednesday being questioned about the win.

The original claimants — 19 Bell Canada call centre workers from east Toronto — validated the winning ticket on Monday, said OLG spokeswoman Sarah Kiriliuk.

But since then, several more people have come forward to say they should have a share of the prize, said Kiriliuk, although she refused to say exactly how many….

Clearly, this is an anxious moment for the winners. But it’s also surely a rather anxious moment for their employer, telecommunications giant Bell Canada.

My friend Andrew Potter (author of The Authenticity Hoax) suggested to me that there are at least a couple of reasons reasons why employers might legitimately choose to ban lottery pools.

The first reason Andrew suggests is the potential for a highly disruptive exodus of an entire group of employees in the event of a lottery win. Most people, when asked, say that the first thing they would do if they won the lottery is quit their jobs. Losing a good employee can be a bad thing. So what happens when a dozen or 20 employees win together, and very likely depart en mass? Clearly, employers have a significant interest in avoiding such an outcome. Of course, the odds against such a thing happening are, well, tiny…one in many millions. How tiny do they have to be for us to say that the employer would be out of line to try to prevent it?

Second, and I think more significantly, Andrew suggests that employers might have a strong interest in avoiding the possible legal troubles that could result from a group of employees winning a lottery. Even for a win much smaller than the $50 million win in the story above, there’s the chance that employees will come forward who say they were unfairly excluded for one reason or another. And with money on the line, lawsuits are far from unlikely. And when lawsuits happen, chances are that everyone is going to get sued, including the employer. After all, an excluded employee can reasonably claim that the employer was effectively hosting the lottery pool, and hence bears some responsibility for making sure that it is run fairly. Even if the dollar amounts are too small to result in lawsuits, I can imagine considerable disruption of the working environment when there’s disagreement over a lottery win. Just take the usual petty office grievances and multiply them by a few tens of thousands of dollars, and then a win for employees equals trouble for their employer.

Now, I’m not sure there’s a huge risk here, but I think it’s an interesting question. Obviously, it behooves employers to allow employees a little breathing room when it comes to lunch-break entertainment. In general, it’s good for employers to respect employees’ privacy and autonomy, and that might include the freedom to engage in things like office pools. For most of us, our employers already dominate our lives in ways that are at least sometimes regrettable, so employers should be cautious about imposing unnecessary constraints. But given that lotteries are already widely-criticized as a regressive form of taxation (or, more bluntly, as a ‘tax on the inability to do math’), it might well be that eliminating office lottery pools would be a reasonable move.

——
Addendum: it’s a little-known and sad fact that a relatively high proportion of lottery winners eventually file for bankruptcy. [URL updated Aug. 2011]

10 comments so far

  1. Ethics Sage on

    Chris, It seems to me the workers can meet at a bar or restaurant after work and then set up the arrangements to “invest” in the lottery. It would be off premises and on their own time. Would it be any different than if they went to Vegas, decided on a maximum amount each person could bet, gambled by all playing at the same poker table, and agreed to share the accumulated winnings or losings?

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Sure, that would be a viable solution. The employer is still at risk, but has less ground to try to control what happens after-hours.

    Chris.

  3. Hugo on

    What are the chances that an employer has any legal right to prevent employees from participating in a lottery pool?

    The lottery is government run, and legal.

    As long as the employees are administering the pool during unpaid break time, or outside of working hours, I say there is nothing a company can legally do to prevent it. If a company tried to terminate an employee because they were participating in a lottery pool, the employee would almost certainly win a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. “Don’t participate in a lottery pool or you’re fired” just wouldn’t work.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Hugo:

    Fair question. I certainly didn’t have in mind anything that would extend the employer’s authority beyond working hours. But even limiting such a ban to working hours, I suspect such a ban would be pretty effective at discouraging pools. If the pool has to be set up on breaks, without posting notices & sign-up sheets on company property, a lot of the fun of it would be gone. Companies do have that option, and so the question remains whether they should exercise it.

    Chris.

  5. Doug on

    I’d like to suggest another legitimate reason for banning office pools, one which has a 100% chance of costing the employer. Office lotto pools require organization and I can personally attest from my current office that there is a significant the amount of work time wasted on a weekly basis in the effort to run these pools. Every Friday, there’s the office-to-office collection of funds that is always accompanied by the standard “what will we do if we win” chatter. Then every Monday, there’s the 15-20 minute re-cap of the standard “did we win, did we win” chatter. My office is notorious for the amount of time wasted on these, potentially costing my employer significant money in lost head count wages. Were I in a position to ban the pool in our office, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Although there are a few people I’d be happy to see win and exit stage left.

  6. Suzanne on

    Our principal has banned the lottery pool at our school. Can she legaly do this?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I have no idea. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know the legal limits on the power of a Principal in your school district.

  7. Mohamed Gharib on

    Chris, can a small business buy insurance against large number of employees winning a lottery pool

  8. Oh dear on

    I was a receptionist in an office and told it was my JOB to organize and manage the office lottery pool by my boss using office emails. I do not play the lottery but was forced to be involved. I added my name to the list as an organizer and proposed a new rule for the group to vote on. Organizers who do not contribute to the pool get a small portion of the winnings for labor and time. Organizers who do contribute to the pool get a small portion for time and labour plus an equal share of the remaining sum. My boss screamed at me and said do what I tell you. She said I was out of line. I was like this is gambling at work it goes against my beliefs and I dont even get a cut of the winnings. So she asked for a volunteer to organize it and CANCELLED the lottery for the day. It was unbeleivable. My coworkers put up with this for over FIVE YEARS.


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