Wanna Cash In on March Madness? Know Thy Co-worker

March Madness means the perennial office pool and accompanying smack talk about alma maters among some of my colleagues. It’s all in good fun and something that, increasingly, many office workers look forward to each spring. The Wall Street Journal’s Dave Kansas agrees.

“March brings with it two annual rites: The start of spring and the NCAA basketball office pool. While rituals surrounding the former have diminished since the days of Druidic dominance, the NCAA hoop pool has grown like kudzu,” Kansas quips.

Kansas says that the key to coming up with a winning strategy is partly psychological – all you need to do is pay attention to your co-workers’ biases (and weaknesses). Those of us who know our co-workers pretty well are better-positioned to make strategic and possibly winning picks when confronted with those bracket choices.

This year’s NCAA March Madness starts with Selection Sunday – official picks on March 14, when college basketball team match-ups are announced on CBS and ESPN – followed by the opening round games on March 16, which means the craziness at work will start in earnest on Monday, March 15.

What will this mean in your workplace? Are office pools frowned upon but run anyway on the QT? Or is the whole betting on sports at work completely out in the open and part of the office culture?

The publisher of The Unofficial Office Pool Handbook claims that two-thirds of U.S. workplaces conduct office pools regularly and 75% of the bosses in those offices participate in the pools along with their subordinates. This amounts to billions of dollars exchanged each year among co-workers, according to Infofan Publications.

Proponents might say that, although betting on the outcome of sporting events is illegal, anti-gaming laws are not enforced in the case of office pools, so there’s really no need to be concerned that workers who participate in March Madness pools will be prosecuted on misdemeanor charges. And it’s not as if the average office pool pot reaches levels that attract outside scrutiny – like the $20,000 take that former University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel allegedly raked in when he picked the winner of the 2002 national basketball championship. (Neuheisel was later fired when word of his wagering on NCAA sports got out).

The general census among the professionals I talked with about office pools is that they generate camaraderie and build morale, even my boss says so: “Office pools are fun and they bring people together,” says Kevin Oakes, i4cp’s CEO. Of course, that view may change if (when) his bracket goes down in flames.

But opponents of office pools say that there’s more to lose from friendly wagering than a few dollars. They contend that office pools are bad business because they create a distraction and impact productivity, they generate more stress for those who participate, and resentment among workers who feel pressured into participating. The March Madness office pool may build team spirit, but it also may be perceived as a sexist perpetuation of the office as a “boy’s club.”

So what are the ethical implications of office betting? Does your office participate in pools?