March Madness: Ball is in employer’s court

March Madness is pounding its way down basketball courts with a second weekend of big games commencing today, and while some employers embrace it as an engagement tool and way to build company camaraderie, labor lawyer D. Albert Brannen warns that -- much like the round-ballers playing defense -- employers shouldn’t let their guard down.

The annual NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, concludes with the championship game April 8 in Atlanta. After the first two rounds, a majority of the games take place after the typical 9 a.m.-5 p.m. work day.

“March Madness festivities in the workplace may seem like harmless fun,” the Atlanta attorney at Fischer Phillips LLP said in a news release. However, there are “serious reasons” to be cautious, he advised.

What some employers view as an employee engagement tool could backfire and open the door to union activity, he told SHRM Online.

Employers who don’t want a union in their workplace, he explained, typically have a number of policies limiting union activity, including a no-solicitation rule in work areas. Allowing employees to solicit for team bracket selection in work areas on company time opens the door to union activity, he said.

“Employers who allow employees, on working time, to solicit for March Madness brackets run the risk they won’t be able to lawfully enforce a prohibition against soliciting for union causes during the working time.”

Additionally, “if you allow them to use computers to solicit [for] these things, then you can’t arguably [prohibit] them to use employer computers for other activities,” he said.

“I’m not an advocate for banning brackets in the workplace, but it has to take place when people aren’t working and in non-work areas,” and not on the employer’s computer system.

“I understand there can be great teambuilding, morale-improving results of this. The main thing employers need to know is that a possible downstream consequence is if you want to stay union free, you may not have this arrow in your quiver to suppress union activity at work.

Other potential problems Brannen sees include workplace tension and ill will from employees who lose money in the basketball pool, a spike in social media activity that can devolve into badmouthing the employer, and hurt feelings or discrimination concerns from employees who can’t afford, or aren’t invited, to participate.

He advises HR to review company policies, such as those relating to solicitation, distribution, and access to the employer’s property;  make sure the policies are lawful under current National Labor Relations Board policies and ensure those policies are consistently enforced.

Such policies may be few and far between, however. A 2010 Society for Human Resource Management  survey found that two-thirds of 280 HR professionals reported that their employers do not have policies regarding office pools, fantasy sports leagues, or gambling in the workplace.

“Go into this with your eyes open,” he advised. “Just put reasonable limits on it and everybody will be happy.”

Teambuilding, morale booster

Susan Heathfield,  a management consultant specializing in HR issues, business co-owner and  Guide to Human Resources columnist, agrees that individual employees should not be organizing workplace pools on company time, especially if money is involved.

However, she thinks employers can harness the excitement surrounding March Madness as a tool for employee engagement and a culture of company camaraderie.

“You can forbid gambling in the workplace, you can forbid them from watching the games -- or you can say, ‘How can I facilitate this to make it the best for all of us?’ ”

But she cautioned that even an employer-run pool should not involve money.

“It should be just voluntary and fun,” she said, with perhaps a company jacket or cap as the prize. “It’s the first couple days when everything [happens] during the day that is so distracting.” She suggested employers consider putting a TV in the break room “so employees can get together instead of running their little [video] streams across their [mobile] devices.”

At the Michigan-based company she co-owns with her husband, where they employ 250 people, they have March Madness parties at the workplace on weekends and invite co-workers’ families. The parties are similar to other after-work events such as bowling parties and dinners that they sponsor throughout the year.

Other ideas for employers -- from Regus, a global flexible workspace provider -- include giving the day off on April 8 to alumni of the schools competing in the championship game; sponsoring a company bracket with prizes such as comp days, or inviting remote workers to pop into a local co-working spot to watch the game with other flex workers.

As for employees following the games on company time, Heathfield said she’s lenient.

“In this day and age where my employees are electronically tied to the company 24/7, I give and take a little. I know they’re at home 10 o’clock at night working on email, and if they want to watch 20 minutes of March Madness, I don’t care.

“You have to set the expectations in your workplace that the majority of the time is work, but I would deal with the occasional employee who overuses the computer at work as a one-off [disciplinary action] rather than have to create a bunch of rules for the [other] 200, 300 people.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor of SHRM Online.

©2013 SHRM. All rights reserved.

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