Office lottery and sports pools

Do pools for money violate workplace anti-gambling policy?

Colin Gibson
Question: Our company policy manual has strict standards on conduct in the workplace, including a prohibition against any kind of gambling on company property. If a group of workers has an office lottery pool where they collect the money at work and pick the numbers through company email, can we consider this a breach of the policy? What about office sports pools involving money?

Answer: The enforceability of a gambling policy, like many policies, typically depends on the clarity of its wording and whether the policy is binding on the employees.

The first question will be whether gambling is defined in the manual. If it is, it should be determined whether the behaviour in question meets the definition and breaches the policy. If there is no definition, then the employer will have to interpret the policy reasonably and consistent with the generally accepted understanding of what gambling is. Based on this, it appears both an office lottery pool and sports pools involving money would constitute gambling. This conduct would, therefore, breach the company’s strict standards on conduct and prohibition against gambling on company property.

Even if the conduct breaches the policy, there remains a question as to whether the policy itself is enforceable and if the employer is permitted to discipline or potentially terminate an employee if she breaches the policy. As with any policy, it will only be enforceable if it forms part of the terms and conditions of the employment contract. Generally, this means the policy must have been clearly communicated to the employees and the employees must have agreed it forms part of the terms and conditions of employment.

While it is possible for the parties to demonstrate by their conduct that a particular policy forms part of the employment contract, best practices would have an employee sign a document prior to the start of employment, specifically agreeing the contract incorporates the policy.

Another question is whether the policy has been enforced consistently in the past. If the employer has previously condoned office lottery or sports pools, then a court may not permit the employer to suddenly change its approach and penalize an employee for a breach of the policy.

In the end, it is up to the employer to decide whether or not it wishes to enforce the policy. Is it the company’s intention to prevent employees from participating in something as innocuous as a lottery pool? Or is the real concern employees may use company time for personal activities? If it is the latter, it may be better to focus on clarifying the policy and taking steps to ensure employees use company time productively.

Colin G.M. Gibson is a partner with Harris & Company in Vancouver. He can be reached at cgibson@harrisco.com or (604) 891-2212.

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