March Madness is here again. The brackets, the excitement, the employment law issues! Yes, many employers find that the annual NCAA basketball tournament goes hand-in-hand with employment law because, unfortunately, one of the most exciting sporting events of the year can also be the most problematic for employers.
Unlike other major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, which takes place on a single Sunday evening, March Madness lasts for weeks and roughly half of the games are played during traditional work hours. Studies have shown a huge drop in productivity during March Madness as employees tune in to watch games, check scores or research teams for their brackets on their computers and smart phones.
Last year, outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. predicted that March Madness would attract more than 2.5 million people daily who would each spend an average of 90 minutes watching games. Taking into account the average private-sector hourly wage, Challenger estimated that employers would end up paying distracted workers about $175 million over the first two full days of the tournament alone.
While these numbers are debated, enough workers are watching games from their offices that CBS now provides the Boss Button, which can be clicked to instantly remove audio and video should a manager approach. And, besides the general lack of productivity, employees who stream games on their computers can cause a company’s entire network to slow.
Another potential source of concern for employers is office pools. These pools often spring up with either the expressed or implied — by not shutting the pool down — consent of employers whose employees bet on the outcome of games and on the tournament’s champion. Regardless of the fact that some might consider these pools to be long standing tradition, gambling unquestionably runs afoul of Florida law.
While some other states have created exceptions to the gambling laws for office sports pools, Florida has not. Florida’s law defines gambling of any kind as a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 60 days and a $500 fine. Although Florida’s gambling law might not be vigorously enforced, it does remain in effect.
Further, employers who allow office pools could potentially be viewed as condoning the illegal behavior of their employees. Even worse, managers who actively encourage employees to join office pools could be accused of coercing others to gamble.
Equally important, turning a blind eye toward illegal activity such as gambling could potentially undermine other rules of behavior, such as prohibitions on sexual harassment or workplace violence, that must always be strenuously enforced. Laxity in enforcement of workplace policies could prove to be a dangerously slippery slope. Allowing gambling could also impact employees who may have addiction issues.
The news is not all bad for employers. March Madness festivities can help improve camaraderie in the work place. A recent survey by OfficeTeam found that one in five managers believes March Madness pools boost office morale.
Companies can focus on increasing morale and camaraderie, and decreasing legal issues, by establishing an office pool with no entry fee or by placing a television in the lunch room to allow workers to catch up on scores during their break times rather than at their desks.
Employers who decide they want to take action against office pools may find that they already have policies prohibiting "illegal activity" while at work or on company premises. Gambling would qualify as an "illegal activity." Likewise, many businesses already have policies regarding using the Internet from company computers, and some may have the ability to block non-work related streaming content.
Employers should consider reminding employees of these policies as March Madness approaches. Companies that do not already have such policies in place may find that this is the perfect time to create them with the help of legal counsel. With the right policies in place, employers could find that March Madness is a net gain for all involved.