WORKPLACE CRIME The Silent Scourge – Betting the firm

There probably aren’t many employers who lie awake in the middle of the night worrying about employees with gambling problems. That’s probably because they may not be aware of how those problems manifest themselves in the workplace and the impact they have on the organisation. The Department of Internal Affairs estimates gambling losses in New Zealand in 2003/04 were $2.04 billion – up from $1.87 billion in 2002/03.
The cost of crime? September 2004: salesman Paul Gray jailed for nine months for stealing $27,750 to feed voracious gambling addiction. March 2003: lawyer Philip Coburn jailed for five and half years for fraud and forgery totalling $1.78 million, of which $1.1 million was spent on pokie machines.
Gambling problems don’t just happen to someone else, they happen to your employees. Gambling problems don’t affect just one person; it’s estimated that someone with gambling problem affects between seven to 15 other people.
For many people, going to the casino or the racetrack, or engaging in other forms of gambling isn’t much of problem. But for between one to three percent of the population, as conservative estimate, it represents major and even potentially life-threatening problem.
The widespread expansion of gambling in New Zealand has put gambling opportunities within easy reach of anyone inclined to try their hand at it. The increase in casinos (New Zealand now has six) and electronic gaming machines – “the pokies” (we have 22,231 of them) – has resulted in women becoming the fastest growing population of people with gambling problems. In 1997 women represented 29 percent of clients presenting for face-to-face counselling, in 2003 they have moved up to 45 percent.
How can managers tell if an employee has problem with gambling? Unlike alcohol and drug problems, there are no telltale physical signs, so it’s much easier to hide.
Common workplace signs of gambling problem:
* Chronic lateness for work or leaving early often.
* Unexplained absences or disappearances from work.
* Extended lunch or tea breaks.
* Being eager to organise and participate in gambling opportunities.
* Requesting pay in lieu of annual leave.
* Frequently borrowing money or getting pay advances.
* Decreased productivity.
* Difficulty concentrating.
* Frequent preoccupation with non-work related matters.
* Arguing with co-workers about money owed.
* Taking annual leave on day-at-a-time basis rather than in block of time.
* Frequent breaks to use the phone for personal calls.
* Excessive use of sick days, using them as soon as they are available rather than allowing them to accumulate.
* Credit card or loan bills mailed to work rather than home.
* False claims made against expense accounts.
* Theft of company property, fraud or embezzlement.
* Mood swings, often related to winning and losing streaks.
As an individual’s problems with gambling develop, employees can progress from spending their own money, to borrowing from friends, relatives and co-workers and pawning possessions. Some move on to embezzlement, fraud and theft from the company.
At senior management levels gambling might take different form. Common scenarios that enhance opportunities for gambling to go undetected include:
* Replacement of the auditor.
* Absence of critical questioning by the board of directors.
* Lack of external, independent auditors.
* Combined roles of CEO and chairman.
* Downward trend in company earnings.
* Reduced cash flow.
Administrators, managers, supervisors, human resource personnel and all employees should be made aware of the danger signs of gambling problems since gambling and gambling-related activities are frequently carried out during work hours.
What can manager do if they suspect an employee has problem with gambling? First, describe the behaviours in caring and supportive manner. “You seem really preoccupied lately and I’m concerned about you.”
Use work-related observations. “I’ve noticed that you seem really distracted lately and have been getting to work late quite bit.”
Use positive approach. “Your work has always been completed on time in the past.”
Explain how the behaviour affects the work situation. “You’re behind on the project, so I’ve had to assign someone else to help out with it.”
Be clear about your position. “Your work performance is way below acceptable standards right now. I need to see an immediate improvement, which will mean completing those projects on time and no more long lunch breaks.”
When gambling problem is suspected, provide information, not advice. “I have some information about organisations that can help with gambling problems, which I’ll be glad to give you.”
Be prepared to deal with denial or hostile reaction. “I know this isn’t an easy subject to talk about, for either of us, but I’m concerned about you.”
There are few measures that companies can take to minimise the negative impact of gambling problems.
Have policy statements that deal with gambling. Internet gambling is becoming much more prevalent and studies indicate that it is often done on company time. Company policy should cover gambling at work just as it does the use of the internet, smoking, drinking or drug use.
Making financial counselling available. number of people start gambling as way out of financial problems or as way to make some extra money. What starts out as solution soon becomes the problem.
Monitor the money. Having direct access to money represents high-risk situation for someone with gambling problem. Many people with gambling problems started out ‘borrowing’ money from work, with the best intentions of paying it back. Another area of risk is the potential for that person to steal from their co-workers.
Make information available about problem gambling just as you would for smoking, alcohol and other drug problems. Have resources available about the various agencies and organisations that provide help with gambling problems.
No one sets out to have problem with gambling and turning blind eye to it doesn’t make the problem go away. In addition to free counselling services, The Problem Gambling Foundation is committed to increasing public awareness about the silent scourge that is affecting the business community as well as individuals and families.

Cynthia Orme is director of clinical services at The Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand.

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