March Madness: Which Way Should Employers Turn?

By Mark F. Kluger and William H. Healey

By the time you read this, there will be only 4 teams left and most of the damage done. The damage is the massive loss of workplace productivity, which this year, Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates will cost employers $2.3 billion for every hour employees spend working on their brackets, talking about the tournament and watching games during the workday. Now, we know that you are probably still mad at us for trying to ruin the Super Bowl with similar data, but this year, March Madness appears to be taking on a new dynamic in the workplace.

Keep in mind that approximately 23 million private sector employees filled out brackets for the 2018 tournament and according to an MSN survey, 56% of employees admitted that they would spend at least an hour during the work day paying attention to some aspect of the madness. With the number of games that are being livestreamed, which allows most employees to watch from the comfort of their phone, 56% sounds like a lot of employees were not forthcoming.

What seems different is the noises that HR departments and employers are making about employees taking their eyes off the ball at work to watch the ball on the court; they seem to be embracing rather than resisting. Andrew Challenger himself said, the tournament is a perfect opportunity for colleagues to bond in the workplace. Any attempt to keep workers from the games would most likely result in real damage to employee morale, loyalty, and engagement that would far outweigh any short-term benefit to productivity. Employers should embrace March Madness and seek ways to use it as a tool to foster camaraderie…  He went on to suggest that employers sponsor a free bracket contest and provide prizes to winners at different stages, bring in lunch and set up a TV area so that employees can watch openly and together while easing off the bandwidth with less streaming needed. Clearly bowing to the tight job market and the Caramel Mocha Macchiato Frappuccino drinking Millennials and Gen Zers who just want work to be fun, Challenger concludes that such an approach will be good for recruiting as well as morale.

#OMG. An HR professional at one of the leading PEOs wrote: The tournament really encourages employees to talk and engage with other employees [which we say leads to sexual harassment]. They learn about common interests [which leads to sexual harassment] which helps build relationships [which leads to sexual harassment]…Casual conversations, like those, can also lead to other conversations about business [or sex]. Ok, so maybe we are too cynical, but holiday parties are our busy season and we have been spending an awful lot of time in the last 6 months reacting to #MeTo by making workplaces more professional and steering employees away from casual and other interactions that lead to sexual harassment claims. So which is it? Are we trying to make the workplace more fun or are we trying to keep employees focused on what they come to work to accomplish?

Maybe Warren Buffett has it right. The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway is giving the winner of his office bracket pool $100,000. And if any employee picked a perfect Sweet 16, Mr. Buffett promised that employee $1 million a year for life. Now that would improve at least one employee’s morale.

Corporate culture is sure at an interesting crossroads these days.  HR has got its hands full.