Debunking Fears Around March Madness in the Workplace

by | 19 Mar, 2019

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For many people, entering the month of March means one thing: March Madness. March Madness is the annual NCAA college basketball tournament that takes place every March, and it drums up a lot of excitement each year. In fact, it is estimated that more than 60 million Americans fill out tournament brackets each year.

While this can be a very exciting time, it can also pose a challenge to employers, as employees focusing on the tournament may be distracted during work hours, which can result in a loss of productivity. Challenger, Gray, and Christmas found that lost productivity due to March Madness could collectively cost employers $2.1 billion in a given year.

Knowing this, many employers may be threatened by the distraction of March Madness, and they may be tempted to crack down on employees using work time to participate. The reality, however, is that employers cannot do much to prevent employees from participating in March Madness, and attempting to quash the excitement can really hinder employee morale. Instead, employers should view March Madness as an opportunity to generate excitement in the office and boost employee morale and engagement. The key is setting clear parameters for what is and is not acceptable, and carving out space for employees to enjoy the tournament while still getting work done.

Here are some common fears associated with March Madness in the workplace, and steps that employers can take to mitigate them.

Fear #1: Gambling in the workplace poses a compliance issue.

While many people who fill out tournament brackets gamble with money, doing so in the workplace can pose quite the legal risk. Because online brackets typically cross state lines, gambling on brackets in the workplace is likely not permitted at the federal level. Beyond that, laws vary by state on whether or not gambling in the workplace is acceptable. The safest route is to prohibit gambling with money in the workplace. This does not mean, however, that employees cannot still engage in friendly competition and fill out brackets. Employers, however, should encourage other types of prizes for winners, such as a happy hour or company swag. Employers should also establish a clear policy around monetary gambling in the workplace and communicate it during this month. This policy should make it clear that monetary gambling is prohibited, and state that employees who fail to comply will be punished.

Fear #2: Allowing participation in the workplace will result in a loss of productivity.

Many employers fear that encouraging employees to participate in March Madness in the workplace will cause a large drop in productivity, as employees will be using work time to watch games, check scores, and fill out brackets. The truth of the matter is that employees are probably going to be doing these activities whether they are allowed to or not. The best approach employers can take is to harness the excitement around March Madness and use it to create specific opportunities for employee engagement. For example, employers can set up a TV in the lunchroom for employees to watch during breaks and lunch, and they can allow certain times of the day to be times for checking scores or updating brackets. Giving employees specific opportunities to participate will boost team morale while still ensuring that employees stay on task and get their work done. Furthermore, employers should be clear that participation should be occurring only at designated times, and any employee who is not meeting deadlines or getting their work done may be asked to refrain from the fun activities until they can satisfactorily complete their work.

Fear #3: Friendly competition between employees could easily turn hostile.

While March Madness activities are typically fun for people that are involved, any competitive activities or environments can quickly sour. For employees that mostly maintain a professional rapport with one another, introducing some friendly competition into the workplace may create or expose some dynamics that are a little bit less friendly. Many employers may fear that this competitive environment could quickly slip into inappropriate behavior or harassment. This is a valid fear, as employees who feel that they have been mistreated may take issue with the employer for allowing the competition to enter the workplace. On the other hand, participating in March Madness activities gives employees across the organizational chart new ways to connect that are not directly related to workplace relationships and tasks. Two employees that rarely interact with each other on a regular basis may have the opportunity to form a friendship, for example. To harness the risk associated with competitiveness in the workplace, employers should preface the activities by sharing a policy around which behavior is acceptable, and which behavior is unacceptable. Employers should consider instituting a warning system for employees who are not behaving in accordance with the policy, and there should be consequences for employers who continuously go against the policy and make coworkers feel uncomfortable.

These are the main fears that employers have associated with inviting March Madness into the workplace. While all of these fears are valid, March Madness can be a great tool for boosting employee engagement and morale. In fact, a survey from OfficeTeam found that half of senior managers reported that activities tied to the tournament boosted employee morale, and 36% reported that it had a positive impact on workplace productivity. In order to reap these benefits, employers should carve out space for employees to participate in March Madness in the workplace, while still setting clear parameters for what is and what is not allowed, and enforcing consequences for employees who go against those parameters.

Leah Bury
Leah Bury was former Marketing Manager at Navigate PEO, and holds a BS from Northeastern University. She contributed pieces and HR tips and created The Compass, our monthly newsletter!

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