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March Madness at work: Time waster or team builder?

More Information

Keeping score

35 million: The number of Americans taking part in college basketball tournament office pools, according to a 2011 NCAA estimate.

92 percent: The percentage of online NCAA basketball tournament viewing that’s done while at work, according to a 2008 Nielsen Media report.

8.4 million: The estimated number of work hours spent watching NCAA Tournament games in 2011, according to the “March Madness Productivity Report” from business consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

$192 million: The negative financial impact of the work hours spent watching the NCAA Tournament, according to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas report.

Friday, March 9, 2012 - 9:44 am

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.

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.

“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. “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 actionto termination.

Employees also should be aware that the company may monitor and audit Internet use.

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 companywide 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.

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.

Craig Larimer, an HR director in the Portland, Ore., area, pointed out that his company does not allow employees to bring cellphones, 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.

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.

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, (www.jjkeller.com) a compliance resource firm that offers products and services to address the responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals.