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Managing March Madness Hoopla at Work

A woman with a laptop in front of a colorful wall.

Have employees been trash-talking about Division I men's college basketball? Are team colors festooned throughout cubicles? Are workers furtively circulating brackets?

Chalk it up to March Madness, baby. The NCAA men's college basketball tournament tips off March 19 in Dayton, Ohio, and the competition culminates April 8 with Final Four games in Minneapolis.

Do you have a game plan for handling the annual 67-game event? If not, you may want to consider developing one. The frenzy around the event can hurt an organization's bottom line. In fact, an Office Pulse survey found that watching games on the job will result in an estimated $604 billion loss in productivity this year as employees stream the games on their phones, laptops and other devices.

But handled properly, March Madness can be an engagement tool.

"While March Madness may feel like a loss of productivity at times, managers can flip the script by using the tournament as an opportunity to improve morale, encourage team bonding and reward employees for their hard work," said Jim Van Til, HR manager at Insperity, an HR services provider in the Minneapolis area.

2019 March Madness graphic.png

Matthew Ross uses March Madness to build morale among his 12 employees. He is co-owner and chief operating officer of The Slumber Yard, a Reno, Nev.-based sleep and mattress review website and YouTube channel.

"I set up a TV right in the middle of the bullpen area and also cater lunch for employees for the first two days. My employees seem to really love it. I can tell it's something that they look forward to every year—even employees who do not care for basketball."

Workers at some organizations may wear school colors or jerseys to display team spirit.

"While it may not seem like a huge perk, many employees who work in a formal office environment appreciate the opportunity to relax on occasion," Van Til said. "A temporarily relaxed dress code can help forge new friendships by fostering conversations about teams or alma maters."

Employees at vie for best NCAA-decorated workpods, and staffers will bring their favorite game-day food to share at a potluck lunch.

"We believe that when people are having fun at the office, they're in a better place and want to come to work and work hard," said Deborah Sweeney, owner and CEO of The online legal and business-filing service for entrepreneurs employs 45 workers and is in Calabasas, Calif.

LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Chicago, will host its 10th annual March Madness party this year. Clients and employees from the company's Illinois offices are invited to headquarters to watch the games and enjoy food and beverages, said Heather Youkhana, senior public relations manager.

"It's a lot of fun and another way to build relationships. Our philosophy is, employees will stream the games regardless. So, companies can either ban it, causing employees to sneak around and do it behind the boss's back, or they can find a way to use it to fuel engagement and bring people together. The key is managers need to hold their people accountable to hitting goals and meeting deadlines," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

The Slumber Yard's Ross said he recognizes productivity might suffer during the two days employees watch the games together, but he's not losing sleep over it.

"The boost in employee morale is worth it," he said. "It's only two days a year … and to be honest, people still get work done. It's not like those two days are completely lost."

In fact, while 12 percent of the more than 8,000 respondents to the Office Pulse survey plan to watch the tournament for more than three hours a day, most (53 percent) will spend an hour or less a day checking out the games.

Beware of Brackets 

More than two-thirds of workers fill out NCAA brackets—in which they predict the outcome of each game in the tournament—because it's a fun way to interact with co-workers, according to Office Pulse. Slightly more than one-fourth play for the potential payout.

But it's important to remember that participating in a March Madness pool that involves the exchange of money is considered gambling and is illegal.

"State laws vary with respect to office pools, but generally if a pool, squares or bracket are for money, then it could very well run afoul of state law," said Steven Silver, an attorney for Ogletree Deakins in Portland, Maine. "If the game occurs across multiple offices over multiple state lines, then federal laws could also come into play. At its core, gambling involves prize, consideration and chance. … If there is an entry fee and a prize, then all three elements are present."

A direct manager's involvement doesn't mean it's legal, he added. HR should make sure March Madness activity does not get out of hand. Make clear what types of games are allowed at work and remind employees about the proper usage of company-issued devices.

If an office pool is organized and is legal in your state, make sure the wagers are small, said James Crumlin, labor and employment attorney at Bone McAllester Norton in Nashville, Tenn.

Or use office-logo swag as the prize for the winning bracket, suggested Philippe Weiss, attorney at Seyfarth Shaw and president of its Seyfarth Shaw at Work consultancy.

Online Labels has sponsored no-pay bracket contests for more than six years, with prizes for the Final Four prognosticators that include company swag and a free lunch, along with bragging rights. 

"We believe engaging our employees outweighs any short-term productivity losses," said Jolie O'Shea, HR manager for the Orlando-based company. "Events that build relationships and camaraderie energize our staff and reinforce our caring, competitive and fun company values. They're also great conversation starters for employees who may not otherwise have occasion to interact, which is a great way to boost our culture."

And at human resources consultancy Mammoth HR in Portland, Ore., employees are given the option of making a monetary donation with each bracket submission. Winners of the men's and women's tournaments select a community charity of their choice where all proceeds are donated, said consultant Brody Zucker, SHRM-CP.

"Whether our employees choose their bracket winners through a detailed analysis of past team performance or by picking which mascot they like best," Zucker said, "the competition gives all employees a reason to participate and enjoy the camaraderie of giving back."


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