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March Madness: Can a morale boost offset the productivity hit?

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

As if computer solitaire games weren't already enough of a pull for daydreaming office workers, March Madness is about to make working hard even harder.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to a Kansas State University business professor who says the NCAA men’s collegiate basketball championship tournament can boost the spirits of fans in cubicles as well as in the stands.

“Selection Sunday” on March 15 kicks off March Madness, and unfortunately for most businesses, a lot of the games take place during the workday. The annual hoops hysteria also kicks off workplace betting, which some say saps productivity as employees spend countless hours filling out tournament brackets, monitoring scores on the web and talking trash across cubicles.

The HR consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates lost productivity during the 19-day tournament, which begins next week, will top $1 billion.

Although NCAA tournament pools are technically illegal, try finding an office without one.

Diane Swanson, management professor at K-State, sees nothing inherently wrong with employees participating in these pools while at work—as long as it’s done in moderation.

Swanson said participation in such office pools can in fact act as a counterweight to the cost and productivity issue, which some place at about $101 million lost by businesses for every 10 minutes employees spend obsessing about the tournament. Pools can instead increase employee morale and output, she said.

“Such activities at work do create a bond among employees and increase their interest in being at work and foster a climate of solidarity,” Swanson said. “Instead of people sitting solemnly around and not connecting, these kinds of things can help to connect people and create bonds around a focal point of interest. This is desirable in a climate where employees by the thousands have lost jobs due to outsourcing and whopping misconduct at the top of organizations.”

But Swanson, who specializes in business ethics, said employees who are uncomfortable with the practice or not interested in the games shouldn’t feel pressured to participate. That could actually hurt morale, she said.

Legal issues aside, Swanson said that if employers know about the pools and if they are run with fairness and without corruption, she doesn't see it as a problem.

“I think one key to balance out the concern is whether the employer is comfortable with this practice,” Swanson said. “If the employer has knowledge of it and doesn't view it as disruptive, I do not see it as unethical per se, although ultimately I have to respect the letter of the law in this area.”

For HR pros, the go-to source on whether or not to condone office pools is the employee handbook.

  • Check to see whether any policies prohibit such pools.
  • Be prepared to enforce your rules if your policies forbid employees from organizing activities in which money changes hands. Explain what the consequences could be. Some employers cite discipline up to and including termination for employees who engage in illegal activities.
  • Make sure employees understand that betting on sports is against the law in every state except Nevada.

Morale advantages notwithstanding, if “the employer has a policy against the practice, then I cannot say it's ethical to have a pool,” Swanson said.

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