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Don't Bet on It!

February 14, 2008 By:
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In advance of the Super Bowl, Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D., aka "The Ethics Guy" at BusinessWeek.com, decided to make himself the most popular fellow around the water cooler by going after office gambling, which he definitively declared to always be a "bad bet."

"Office pools involving cash are common, exciting and potentially lucrative," he wrote. "But they can violate corporate policies and the law. Even where they are legal and not in violation of company protocol, however, they are wrong, and we ought not to participate in them."

Weinstein's point in his past columns has been that arguments dealing with ethics aren't necessarily dependent on what the law, public policy or corporate rules have to say. An action can be perfectly legal but totally wrong -- or it can be against the law "but ethically required."

"One would like to believe that laws, regulations and policies are always based on what is right," he said, "but we know that too often they are shaped instead by special interests, outdated beliefs, or pure and simple prejudice. For any law or policy, we can and should ask, 'Is it right? Is it fair? Is it just?' "

This doesn't mean, said Weinstein, that he's calling for civil disobedience. The law, he argued, "is an important first step in deciding what we should do and why we should do it. ...

"For all of the problems in the legal system, it is hard to imagine that a civilized society could survive for very long without laws ... ."

When considering the propriety of gambling at the office, it's important to at least consider what Weinstein calls "the relevant law." Though not a lawyer, he did some research and found that the legality of pools varies from state to state, meaning that in some states, pools are illegal. These laws are rarely enforced, and it is far more important for the police to investigate serious crimes "rather than rumors that employees in the local coffee shop are betting" on the Super Bowl.

But you shouldn't conclude that pools have no legal consequences. Certain employees, including some at the management level, have been fired and even arrested for participating in such games, the main reason being that the practice was in violation of company rules.

But it's not the ethics of gambling that bother Weinstein. He doesn't mind betting in, say, Las Vegas. "The office, however, simply isn't appropriate for gambling. It's called a workplace for a reason ... Things that interfere with doing our job should be done before or after work. The same goes for talking politics at work ... , having sex, drinking single malt whiskey, surfing the Web for bargains, or yakking with friends on our cell phones. The issue isn't whether a particular activity is high- or lowbrow ... It's just as wrong to spend two hours on the job debating the Cartesian mind-body distinction as it is to watch Jenna Jameson videos for 20 minutes. Whether either activity is your cup of tea is up to you; what isn't up for grabs is the propriety of doing either while at work."

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