Stop the March Madness? Or Accommodate It?

NCAA basketball tournament tests workplace boundaries on betting, game-watching

By Dana Wilkie Mar 11, 2015
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It may not be surprising to learn that more than 1 in 4 employees plan to tune in to March Madness games while on the job, but it could be alarming to know that 1 in 7 said they’d call in sick to watch.

Those findings from a recent RetailMeNot survey highlight just how important the upcoming annual NCAA basketball tournament is to some workers. While many HR professionals say March Madness workplace events and betting are good for employee morale, others caution that if an organization allows employees to watch the games and fill out their brackets on the clock, it can’t discipline workers who use company time for other personal activities.

“One of the main concerns here is the risk an employer runs when treating March Madness differently from comparable scenarios,” said Brett Coburn, a partner in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird. “For example, if you’ve got a man watching March Madness on his computer and the employer knows about it and doesn’t do anything, but you catch a woman shopping online and you discipline her, you’re walking into a disparate treatment claim.”

 March 2013 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that the NCAA tournament was among the top events for which organizations reported having office pools in 2013 (36 percent). More than two-thirds (70 percent) of HR professionals said that such pools have a positive impact on relationship building, 64 percent said they promote team building, and 54 percent said they increase employee engagement.

“March Madness is really important to some people, and it can almost be a community event for those in the workplace,” said Paul White, a psychologist in Wichita, Kan., who writes on relationships in the workplace. “We know people feel valued in different ways, and one way is to give [March Madness fans] flextime” to watch games during the workday. “This can show you are aware of what their interests are, and this can actually improve relationships.”

White acknowledged the risks of allowing workers to celebrate March Madness while on the clock. For example, employees who aren’t basketball fans may perceive the focus on the tournament as unfair or prejudicial. Employers, he said, may need to decide if this will be an annual practice and if other big sporting events, such as baseball’s World Series or soccer’s World Cup, will be handled in the same manner.

“Whether that means you have to give other people that aren’t interested in basketball equal time off to do something else—that’s one choice,” he said. “You also need to talk to your managers and find out what’s going on [during key games]—for instance, if there’s a big project due or a deadline, maybe it doesn’t work for the team to have time off.”

Laws and Policies

Coburn cautioned that employers that monitor employees’ company computer use—and who discipline workers for abusing company time to watch the games—need to consider privacy laws.

“The laws about this vary from state to state, but for the most part, employers have the right to monitor use on a company computer,” he said. “It’s a good practice to communicate with employees so they know you’re doing this, partly so it has the desired preventive effect but also so that if you catch them, there can’t be this argument, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were monitoring my computer, and that’s an invasion of my privacy.’ ”

Workers might also use their employers’ computer networks to participate in office pools.

The 2013 SHRM poll found that most employers (81 percent) don’t have policies regulating office pools, compared to 67 percent in 2010. The survey polled 355 HR professionals from a randomly selected sample of SHRM’s membership.

Most policies that do address office pools include “prohibition of gambling that includes monetary exchange in the workplace” (70 percent), “disciplinary action (not including termination) for failure to comply with policy” (69 percent) and “prohibition of any form of gambling, including office pools” (66 percent), according to the SHRM poll.

Gambling is illegal in most states. Some states, however, allow an exception for social gambling, which is typically defined as betting that happens in a strictly social context, in which the betters previously knew one another and in which no bookies are involved.

Although workplace March Madness pools might fall under that exception, it’s advisable to check your state laws and your organization’s policies.

Weighing the Costs

Chicago-based consulting group Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that workers’ interest in March Madness might have cost U.S. employers up to $1.2 billion for each hour of lost productivity in 2014.

“There’s a matter of degree involved,” Coburn said. “Some employers will view the morale issue as a bigger deal than the potential loss of productivity. Workers shouldn’t have carte blanche to sit there and watch every game while they should be working, but it may be the company says, ‘You can use a company computer for personal use an hour a day on your own time,’ but also make it clear that it’s an exception to your regular policy and you’re going to apply that exception to everyone in the company.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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