You’ve already read the lawyer’s take on March Madness – now it’s time for the HR perspective.

While many greet tournament time with much enthusiasm, HR professionals don’t always share the same view.  Every year we read articles about how damaging the tournament can be to employers.  As discussed in this forum a few weeks ago, statistics predict billions of dollars are lost in worker productivity due to employees participating in office pools, talking about last night’s game, or surfing the net looking for team results.

Obviously, “March Madness” can drive business owners and managers, well, mad if they let it.  That’s why when it comes to this issue, I break with many of my HR brethren and recommend that rather than trying to fight the system, employers should embrace this time of year.

Let’s face it, there are always going to be distractions in the workplace.  Humans are social creatures, and there is little that employers can do to stop water cooler talk about “who got voted off the island” or “what Charlie Sheen said on Leno last night,” and quite frankly, why would we want to?    Not all office talk needs to be about work issues to be considered “productive.”

For instance, with a little coffee room chat about the tournament you may find out that Mary in accounting is also a Jayhawk, and she would be happy to help you with your spreadsheet, or that Bob in Marketing isn’t weird; rather, he always wears light blue ties is because he is a Tar Heel.  When it comes right down to it, the camaraderie that we have with our co-workers is one of the best things about coming to work, and HR professionals everywhere often lose sight of that in the morass of everything else they have to do to stay organized and comply with the law.

As far as the loss of productivity due to web surfing is concerned, keep in mind that with today’s technology, many employees remain connected to the office on evenings, weekends, and even check in while on vacation.  It is true what they say, “it’s no longer about how many hours are being spent at the office, it’s about getting the job done.”  While being mindful of the potential impact this may have on wage and hour issues, the reality is that good employees will do what it takes to meet their deadlines, even if they are sidetracked for a few minutes by going on-line to see how the Buckeyes are doing in their opening game.

So, rather than having employees surf the Internet to see how many picks they got right in the first round, I suggest – if it’s feasible – having a TV set up in the cafeteria or a conference room and keep the games running all day.   That can help alleviate the problem of the computer system being bogged down by Web surfers.  While you are at it, why not make an event out of it by bringing in some basketball themed cupcakes, chips and drinks, and have employees dress in their team colors?  With a little creativity you can get everyone involved.

The concerns which the legal folks caution us about – workplace policies, consistency, and gambling, among others – are valid concerns.  Not all employers will be able to go “mad” for a few weeks.  Setting precedent is a fair consideration and may require you to assess how flexible your policies are and how far the precedent will stretch.

However, my point is this:  although the Madness runs over the better part of three weeks, it really only significantly impacts two workdays – the first Thursday and Friday when the tourney games begin at noon on the east coast.  There is little doubt that most employers will experience some amount of lost productivity on those two days.  However, rather than drive ourselves mad by trying to shut things down to save a little productivity time, employers can earn a great deal of goodwill with our employees by embracing the event and allowing our employees to have some fun while at work.

Ann Kontner is a former senior human resources executive with vast experience in all facets of the HR field. She brings to S&J over 25 years of HR experience in corporate compliance, administrative management, staff development and executive leadership skills. She has worked for a wide range of employers including both public and privately held corporations, federal government contractors, and has experience working in both domestic and international markets.
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