Thursday, March 20, 2014

March Madness in the workplace: Fun or foul?

March Madness began this week and millions of Americans are now involved in one of the nation’s most intense 21 days of athletic competition. Sports enthusiasts all over the nation have put in their brackets and are now watching their choices play out.

It starts with 68 teams -- for just the men’s tournament alone – and ends with one national champion, the last team standing. With such intense competition and an outcome that cannot easily be identified by even the best analysts, sports enthusiasts all over the nation are already on the edge of their seats.

If not managed properly March Madness can be a real problem in the workplace. It might seem ludicrous to say the enthusiasm and love for the tournament has to be left at home during the workweek.  Doesn’t that take away friendly, casual inter-office casual competition? March Madness can’t be that big of a deal if it is only 21 days out of the year right?

Most of the games during the first week are broadcasted mid-afternoon and are full of action that one would not want to miss during the workday. Service providers like Verizon Wireless and DirectTV make watching the games as easy as a click of a button. So the occasional check-in from your computer or phone isn’t that big of a deal – or is it? RetailMeNot conducted a survey with The Omnibus Company and recently reported that almost three in 10 professionals plan to watch March Madness at work. Additionally, the survey found that 39 percent plan to watch the games right from their work computers.

This doesn’t account for employees that may be watching or checking scores on their cell phones or mobile devices. For employers, this amounts to a distracted and less productive workplace. It can result in poor work performance and costly mistakes by employees. Employers are still paying wages throughout March Madness, meaning countless dollars are spent on employees working absent-mindedly or not working at all.

As if distracted employees, low production and the sunken cost of wages aren’t enough – take into account bracket pools amongst employees. While bracket pools often are a friendly betting competition between co-workers, a company needs to think about the impact these activities can have over the long term.

Depending on how management handles the situation with employees, there could be serious consequences such as employee grievances, disciplinary actions and even discrimination/harassment claims. What if a company allows the March Madness bracket pools as a fun inner office activity but doesn’t want to allow a bracket pool for the NBA Finals or even the NFL playoffs? Then there is the gambling in the workplace that doesn’t include sports related competitions.

It’s important to think about how to respond to employee issues that may come as a result of bracket pools gone wrong. Is a company prepared to take disciplinary action against employees that take the friendly competition too far?  What exactly is a company’s disciplinary policy on matters like this. The outcome of these situations can have long-lasting and potential legal liabilities.

March Madness can be an opportunity for an afternoon mental break and some friendly fun between co-workers. Important for companies to remember, however, that unless these activities are carefully monitored and managed in compliance with company policies, March Madness can create the kind of madness in the workplace that doesn't do anyone any good.