March Madness at work: Time waster or team builder?

As March Madness descends, bringing brackets, pools and hundreds of hours of college basketball coverage, employers would do well to let workers know where they stand -- not on the topic of Duke vs. North Carolina, but on their view toward monito...

As March Madness descends, bringing brackets, pools and hundreds of hours of college basketball coverage, employers would do well to let workers know where they stand -- not on the topic of Duke vs. North Carolina, but on their view toward monitoring sports events at work.

During the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) men's basketball tournament, it's not uncommon for a worker's attention to wander. From the tournament's Selection Sunday this weekend to its championship game on April 2, this three-week stretch offers a great opportunity for distraction.

Interest is likely to be especially intense during the robust schedule on March 15 and 16, which offers a steady stream of daytime games.

Passing on work

Not long ago, employees who wanted to see early round games broadcast live had to dedicate a vacation day or two to lying on the couch, TV clicker in hand. Now, all 67 tournament games can be viewed live from a computer, iPhone, iPad and some Android phones for a small fee.


This can present a problem for employers who fear a game-time dip in productivity and a strain on IT resources. However, damage can be mitigated if employees have a clear understanding of their boss' position.

"Employees should know what is expected of them this month and every month," stated Katie Loehrke, the editor of the Employment Law Today newsletter from compliance resource firm J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. "Employees should know how much time is acceptable to spend on personal matters during work time. Most organizations allow employees at least some time to discuss or pursue personal interests, but there must be a limit."

Playing by the rules

A company may already have the March Madness issue covered under a blanket Internet use policy. If Internet access is for work-related purposes only, it wouldn't hurt to remind employees of that fact before the tourney begins. A company also would be wise to let employees know the consequences for not following the policy, which could range from disciplinary action to termination.

Employees also should be aware that the company may monitor and audit Internet use. Employees should not expect their computer use to be private and should be made aware of policies that might limit or prohibit cell phone use during working time.

"A reminder to employees around this time of year about policies may be all it takes to curb the kind of overzealous participation that kills productivity," Loehrke said. "No matter what the distraction, employees should always be held to the same standard of performance. If they can't be part of a March Madness pool and still be productive, discipline may well be in order."

Rallying the team

Rather than trying to quash employee access to scores and games, employers might want to consider how they can make interest in the tournament work to their advantage. A company-wide pool that allows employees to fill out the brackets for fun - and does not involve cash prizes or an entry fee - could be an ice-breaker, and chatter about last-second victories and upsets offers an opportunity for employee bonding.


"You may find that employees' common interest in the tournament actually has team-building potential," Loehrke said. "Employees may be creating new relationships within your organization that they wouldn't otherwise have occasion to form."

Employees might rally around a casual day that allows them to wear the colors of their favorite team, appreciate flexible hours that allow them to catch a big game, or enjoy watching the action at designated times during the day.

"Employees who don't overdo it may be getting a much-needed mental break for a few minutes during the workday," Loehrke said. "Knowing that they're trusted to get their work done while having a few brief conversations about a personal interest can also provide a morale boost."

Varying the game plan

J. J. Keller recently asked human resources professionals from around the nation for their views on the topic, and they noted that company expectations are key when it comes to handing popular events such as March Madness.

Craig Larimer, an HR director in the Portland, Ore., area, pointed out that his company does not allow employees to bring cell phones, iPads or other portable electronics into the office, but does allow them to check scores online or watch games in the break room at lunchtime.

"We are pretty old-fashioned, but we are human, too," he said. "Employees know they are accountable and do not abuse this. This policy has worked."

How a company handles the issue often depends on its culture and size. Karen Townsend, an organizational development manager from the Denver area, works for a start-up where employees are closely attuned to the company's goals.


"We are each so close to the [company's] vision and strategy that we take some personal responsibility in finding that balance, so we don't have to remind everyone that these things shouldn't consume the workday," she said.

When she worked for a larger company, stricter guidelines were in place, but employees were allowed to check the Internet during breaks and wear jerseys on designated days. She noted that while goals still need to be met, an environment that's too restrictive can lower morale.

"Ultimately, we asked employees to be accountable for the own decisions and their own work," she said. "They knew they had a job that needed to get done, and they knew what was expected of them. Allowing some play in the day made it seem like it wasn't the end of the world if they spoke with a co-worker or checked in on a news story from time to time. In return, they were happy being there because it wasn't a punitive environment."

Whether a company views the tournament as a threat to productivity or an opportunity for employee bonding, the corporate view should be clearly communicated to everyone, added Steve Madsen, an operations director at Linked:HR, a web-based community for HR professionals.

"Overall, there needs to be buy-in from top to bottom of the organization," he said. "Otherwise, it will only take one nose-to-the-grindstone manager or employee to throw a monkey wrench into the entire plan."

A winning strategy

Properly handled, an event such as March Madness that generates high interest doesn't need to be a negative. It can help a company establish a positive workplace tone, offering an opportunity to boost morale while underscoring the importance of everyone's contribution to the organization's success.

The NCAA tournament will end with one champion, but a company that knows how to channel the energy it generates is likely on the way to a winning season itself.


Terri Dougherty is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. She specializes in writing about human resources issues. J. J. Keller and Associates is a nationally recognized compliance resource firm that offers a diverse line of products and services to address the responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. To learn more, visit and

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