Don't Let "March Madness" Take Over Your Workplace

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has announced the 65 college teams participating in its 2010 Men’s Division I Basketball Championship and a 64-team field competing for the 2010 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship. This begins the nearly three-week single-elimination tournament that takes place mainly during March. It is appropriate now to consider the potential effect the basketball tournament may have on the workplace.

The potential for workplace distractions during the tournament is great. Many of the games — particularly during the first week of the tournament — will be played during regular business hours. While at work, employees enter pools, complete and check the status of their “brackets,” watch games, check scores through streaming downloads on the Internet from their work computers, or otherwise engage in non-work related “sports talk” about the tournament. Indeed, consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., estimate the loss of workplace productivity over the 19-day tournament at over $1.8 billion, based on employees spending about 20 minutes each workday during the first five days of the tournament on game-related activities. Even the streaming of live video feeds of games can strain employer computer systems.

On the other hand, general employee interest in the same subject could increase collegiality, morale, and cohesiveness among colleagues. Particularly in these challenging economic times, fostering positive shared experiences at work can be extremely beneficial.

What Employers Can Do

If an employer sponsors or allows employees to participate in “March Madness” activity at work, some practical guidelines and recommendations should be considered:

  1. If there is any type of pool in the workplace, employers may advise all employees that participation is completely voluntary.
  2. If an employer allows employees to disseminate brackets, employers should ensure that company policies are not ignored. For example, if the company has a solicitation policy, employees should be advised that solicitation of co-workers for participation must occur during non-work time. Consistent enforcement of workplace rules is always important.
  3. Employees should understand that sports-gambling is generally prohibited in most states (except for Nevada). See New York General Obligation Law § 5-401 et seq. (“All wagers, bets or stakes, made to depend upon any race, or upon any gaming by lot or chance, or upon any lot, chance, casualty, or unknown or contingent event whatever, shall be unlawful.”); see also New York Penal Law Art. 225 et seq. (proscribing certain criminal conduct as felony or misdemeanor offenses). While a few states permit pools as long as the entry fee is minimal and the organizer does not take a “cut,” any pool advertised in the workplace should be phrased carefully. For instance, employers who permit pools should state explicitly that no “betting” or “entry fee” is allowed. Alternatively, if the pool is employer-sponsored, the employer can award the winner a non-cash prize, such as a lunch, dinner, or tickets to a sporting or performance event. This also is important to ensure that it the company not explicitly or implicitly allows violation of a no-gambling policy.
  4. Moreover, even if an employer chooses to allow “bracketology,” the parameters of such activities should be made clear. In addition to reiterating its no-solicitation and no-gambling policies, the employer also may reiterate that not only illegal betting is prohibited, but also failing to perform one’s job responsibilities, being unresponsive and untimely to client needs, and improperly and excessively using the company’s Internet access, computers and equipment for non-work related purposes is prohibited. In other words, participation in a pool is not a license to stop working altogether.

March Madness can add a level of energy and spirit to the workplace without unduly affecting work performance. Participation can be used as a group and team building activity. However, it is vital to take the monetary exchange out of it and minimize the risk while maintaining the fun and excitement.