March Madness: Ball Is in the Employer's Court

News Updates

Check your calendar. Synchronize watches. Draw up the brackets. March Madness is here. The 67 games of the annual NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament begin March 13 and conclude April 2, 2012.

Fans can—and likely will—follow along on their computer, iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and select smart phones to watch games and track brackets while at work.

Along the way, productivity will be impacted, Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John A. Challenger said in a news release.

“It is not just a matter of watching the games during the workday that threatens productivity. Starting the Monday before the tournament begins, workers are likely to be distracted by filling in their brackets for the ubiquitous March Madness office pools,” he noted.

However, the time employees devote to it will not bring about the downfall of the American economy, he acknowledged.

The impact, he noted, will be “at the micro level”—company Internet speeds might be slower, some workers will be slow responding to work e-mails, and lunch breaks might extend beyond the usual time limits.

“Ultimately, March Madness will not even register a blip on the nation’s economic radar, and even the smallest company will survive the month without any impact on their bottom line,” he stated.

This from the man who every year points to lost productivity and estimates the millions of dollars private-sector employers will pay to distracted workers who will be keeping one eye on the job and the other on the ball.

His estimates, he said, are “meant to be a tongue-in-cheek look at how technology continues to blur the line between our professional and personal lives.”

IT: Jumping Through Hoops

March Madness mostly is “a headache-inducing annoyance for information technology departments, human resources and department managers,” Challenger observed.

His yearly estimate on lost productivity during this time of year, he said, provides “an opportunity to remind workers that practicing some moderation in their March Madness viewing will go a long way toward keeping managers off their back.

“It is equally important for employers to cut workers some slack, particularly in an economy that has left many workplaces understaffed and overworked.”

There are a few ways that organizations can respond to this fevered interest, he suggested. One is to embrace March Madness as a morale-boosting activity. This could include putting TVs in the break room, so employees have somewhere other than their personal computer to watch the games, and organizing a companywide pool that does not involve entry fees.

Activities tied to sports events can be good for morale as long they don’t interfere with work, OfficeTeam Executive Director Robert Hosking said in a news release. OfficeTeam offered the following tips to employees before tipoff:

  • Review company policy before engaging in game-related activities at work, such as checking scores online, to know what is considered acceptable.
  • Review company policy about whether decorating your workspace in support of your favorite college is allowed.
  • Show sportsmanship, and leave your overly competitive streak at home.
  • Don’t let March Madness sideline your work.
  • If you want to take a day off to watch the event, ask your supervisor in advance so workloads can be managed.

“Watching a game together or holding a friendly contest provides opportunities for employees to build team spirit,” Hosking said.

If gambling is involved with March Madness, employers might be subjecting themselves to legal liability, according to law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.

“Betting pools can involve risk of violating various laws,” said Michael Abcarian, managing partner of the labor and employment firm’s Dallas office.

“Some employers are willing to take the risk, however,” he said in a news release, and they “should ensure that managers and supervisors are not coordinating office betting pools, soliciting employee participation in them, or otherwise creating the appearance of employer sponsorship.”

He noted that employers who have policies against watching streaming video online, which tie up company bandwidth, should address that in advance of March Madness.

Embracing the Madness

The Ken Blanchard Companies in Escondido, Calif., embrace March Madness, its director of digital marketing, Dominic Peterson, wrote in an e-mail.
“We actually set up an internal Blanchard March Madness that incorporates a two-on-two basketball tournament as well as a free-throw contest.”

About 30 people participate in the two tournaments. Winners receive trophies, and employees bring baked goods for spectators, who number around 50.

“It’s a great way for people in the company to get together [and] cheer each other on, and it also promotes an active lifestyle,” he said.

A large HR consulting firm where Darcy Eikenberg once worked also used March Madness to its benefit.

The actuaries there worked independently from other employees, but “there was one time each year we all got to know each other better—and that was during March Madness,” recalled the author of Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence & Control (Red Cape Revolution, 2012) and the founder of coaching and consulting business

“Some of our sports-minded actuaries had developed a detailed spreadsheet program to allow associates from all over the country to place their guesses and follow who across the firm had made the best predictions. Suddenly, by participating, you were introduced to new associates—as well as their school loyalties or location biases—and these relationships often continued past the Final Four,” Eikenberg wrote in an e-mail.

“I still am in touch with several former colleagues who I first met one March.”

Buzz Revolution, a Denver-based marketing and advertising provider, “relishes this time of year,” CEO Shawn Hermanson wrote in an e-mail.

“I know some companies dread this time of year because managers think that their employees will be secretly watching the games on their phones or computers—and they are right,” Hermanson said.

“Instead of having my employees sneak around and secretly watch the games, we make a game out of it,” he said. “We set up televisions in the office and give away prizes for people picking against upper management.”

When late games are aired, the company holds an office party.

“The employees realize we are being cool, so they really bust their humps to repay us,” he added.

Some employers remind workers to practice moderation in their tournament viewing but do not take steps to suppress participation, provided that March Madness does not create “an overt and significant problem,” Challenger stated.

“If an employee fails to meet a deadline or if customer service suffers as a result of March Madness distractions, then there should be consequences. However, if employees are getting all of their work done and customers are happy and the biggest problem is a slow Internet connection for a couple of days, it may be best to let it slide,” Challenger said.