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Office pools easy as long as they’re losing

As some Bell Canada lottery players are discovering, office pools are all fun and games as long as they are losing. It’s when there is suddenly a pot of money at stake that things get complicated.

Given the amount of money potentially at stake with office pools, it’s surprising how little attention tends to be given to organization and administration. The typical situation is this: some unlucky person is stuck with the weekly task of collecting money and buying tickets; anyone and everyone who wants to contribute a few bucks is allowed in the pool; and, in most cases, there’s never a dispute because the winnings never amount to anything significant.

But the funny thing about lotteries is that, while any particular group’s chances of winning may be really, really remote, eventually someone wins the jackpot. As long as your pool continues to purchase tickets, there’s the chance the organizer will end up facing a mob of angry poolies (torches and pitchforks are optional) demanding their share of the loot.

In the present case, some 19 Bell Canada call centre employees recently found themselves holding a ticket worth $50 million. It is the second biggest group jackpot win in Canadian history and it may become the biggest headache these employees have ever experienced.

That’s because several other employees have come forward claiming a share of the pot. If the Bell Canada pool was operated as loosely as many others, those employees may have a point.

There are several obvious problems with the operation of the typical office lottery pool.

In the simplest of worlds, there would be just one person buying one ticket for one draw – in the event of a winning ticket, there would be no competing claims for the money. In the real world, the situation is complicated by the presence of numerous (and varying) pool members and multiple tickets for draws taking place over an extended period of time.

Existing poolies abandon ship, others join up, old tickets and small cash prizes generate more tickets (which may themselves earn additional free tickets in a future draw). And on it goes.

The result is a situation in which it may be impossible to distinguish who invested in which ticket. There may simply be no way to determine precisely who should share in the eventual winnings. When there’s $50 million in winnings at stake, that’s a problem.

There are, however, some basic rules pool organizers can follow to eliminate squabbles and the need to start hiring lawyers the minute they find themselves holding a winning ticket.

First, the office lottery pool should not be a long-running, continuous affair. It should have clear breaks from time to time.

One way to do this is to halt the pool once a year or whenever a jackpot has been won. Take the time to exhaust any remaining free tickets and cash, distribute any substantial winnings, and establish a clear break in time before the next session of the pool begins. This allows existing players to abandon the pool and new ones to enter without ever muddying the waters of entitlement to winnings.

Second, the group of poolies should be clearly established at the outset of each session and diligently controlled throughout. The pool administrator must keep accurate records of which co-workers have entered each session of the pool.

Third, once a session of the pool has commenced, no new poolies should be allowed to join until the current pool ends and a new one begins. I call this the “no Johnny-come-latelies” rule – it prevents late-arriving players from laying claim to winnings to which they did not contribute.

Fourth, a participant entering the pool must commit to staying in for whatever number of weeks it takes for the jackpot to be won and the current pool to wrap up. This prevents poolies from abandoning ship and then claiming a share of winnings obtained after they left.

As a lawyer, I can’t help but recommend that organizers establish the rules in writing and have each player sign on to them at the outset of each session. Realistically, I can’t expect that to always occur (but, at the very least, the pool administrator should communicate the rules to each poolie at the outset of each new pool).

Follow these rules and you’ll be well on your way to a dispute-free jackpot experience. I can’t do anything about the poor odds of winning the big one, but these rules will definitely decrease the chances of having to pay a chunk of your winnings to lawyers.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.