Managing March Madness in the Workplace

March 18, 2016
How to keep the March Madness madness out of the office.

How to keep the March Madness madness out of the office.

Spring is in the air. The swallows have returned to Capistrano. The daffodils are singing, the birds are blooming. And soon Americans will be turning our attention to our national springtime obsession: College basketball.

And that can be a problem in the workplace: Employers and supervisors have to keep up workplace morale and positive employee relations while also keeping employees on task and productive.

Also, March Madness can be an expensive proposition. According to a 2014 study by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, employers lose as much as $1.2 million or more every year to presenteeism and unproductive work hours thanks to the college basketball playoffs. 

“You have employees talking about which teams made or didn’t make the tournament. You have other workers setting up and managing office pools. Of course, there are the office pool participants, some of whom might take five minutes to fill out a bracket, while others spend several hours researching teams, analyzing statistics and completing multiple brackets,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“Finally, Thursday and Friday bring the actual games, which typically begin right in the middle of the work day for folks on the east coast. Meanwhile, in California, where tournament coverage begins at 9:00 am, workers can spend the entire workday streaming games on their computer or mobile device.”

Here are some tips for keeping things humming along during the annual basketball craze.

Protect Your Company from Liability or Enforcement Arising from the Office Pool

Yes, even President Obama loves to fill in his brackets. But at the very least, office betting pools are generally legally ambiguous, if not outright illegal. In some cases, an office March Madness pool could run afoul of state laws and expose employees and employers alike to liability.

  • Keep the brackets off of the company computers. Instill a policy that prohibits employees from printing brackets in the office. This helps limit your company’s involvement in the pool and encourages employees to keep the March Madness madness at home.
  • Limit betting to one worksite per pool. Discourage anything that crosses state lines. An office pool with participants in multiple states complicates the legal situation and potentially expose the company and employees to federal law violations.
  • Don’t allow anyone acting as an employee to take a ‘cut’ in return for operating the pool. While district attorneys typically don’t hunt down and arrest garden variety low-stakes office pools, they could take action if someone were essentially operating as the office ‘bookie.’
  • Some states have de minimus rules governing low-stakes gambling. Pennsylvania, for example, has a law on the books allowing small games of chance, provided the stakes to $20 each, the number of participants is not more than 100, and nobody’s keeping a cut of the pot.
  • Management should not participate. It’s one thing for a bunch of employees to operate a pool among themselves. But if you have senior executives running the pool using company computers to keep track of contributions and results, they’re painting a target on a company’s back.

Protect Computer Resources

  • If you have dozens of employees all watching the games on their worksite computers all at the same time, it could spike your bandwidth usage, slow your systems and hamper productivity and customer service. If you have a lot of employees on the same Internet pipeline, take steps to limit that usage. For example:
    • Prohibit streaming March Madness games on the network, but have the game on in the break room or on televisions in other areas of the workplace.
    • Take a break together to watch the last 5 minutes of every game.
    • Let employees listen to March Madness games via radio, if appropriate to the workplace.
    • Tell employees to bring their own mobile devices to watch the games on.

Protect Your People

  • Don’t pressure employees to participate or allow others to pressure employees to participate. Here’s one reason why that’s a bad idea: Many observant Muslims consider gambling to be a violation of their religious faith. Some of them won’t even buy life insurance on that principle. If a Muslim employee, for example, feels repeatedly pressured to participate in the pool and gets tired of it, he or she could file a Title VII complaint citing a ‘hostile work environment.’ And potentially have an arguable case.
  • Don’t apply industrial age-thinking to a knowledge-age workplace. For many employees, it’s not like there’s an assembly line of widgets that shudders to a stop every time the employees start talking about last night’s game. In the knowledge worker era, these brief interludes, if controlled and short-lived,  can go a long way to help recharge employee batteries, nurture morale, improve formal and informal relationships around the country, and actually help foster better productivity. In cases like these, March Madness can work for you, not against you.