March Madness: Everything HR needs to know

March Madness has once again descended upon the workplace. Here’s everything HR needs to know about the tournament — how it’ll affect productivity, if office pools are legal, and what HR can and should do about it.

First the bad news: March Madness isn’t likely to help your productivity.
American companies stand to lose at least $134 million in lost wages during the first two days of the tournament, according to a the always-popular annual March Madness survey from Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Worse: One of every three workers will spend one to three hours watching games during work hours.
Not only does that mean lost productivity and time, but it can also mean employees will be taxing your company’s IT system streaming audio and video of the games online.
Sounds like fun, right?

Are March Madness office pools illegal?

Before you delve into the intricacies of March Madness pools and policies, there’s a more important question: Are March Madness office pools even legal?
Cue the classic lawyer answer: It depends, according to Daniel Schwartz from an article on
What there aren’t any questions about is the legality of sports betting, which is illegal in most states. (Trivia: Only Montana, Delaware, Oregon and Nevada allow it.)
And gambling on college basketball can result in a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail, according to an article on Legal Zoom.
That’s because betting on the NCAA tournament is just as popular as betting on the Super Bowl: About $12 billion was circulated on betting on the NCAA tournament in 2011 — and a third of that was in small bracket pools.

Is that ban enforced?

A better, more relevant question: Will the government actually enforce those anti-gambling laws for a small office pool?
Not likely, says Schwartz.
Yes, gambling on the tournament results in a billions of dollars changing hands. But the likelihood that any state would actively seek out and bust a company for a small office pool is basically nonexistent, says Schwartz — states have bigger fish to fry: “I really haven’t heard of any companies that have been targeted because of an office pool. Among the things employers are worried about, this doesn’t seem to be one of them.”
In fact, in addition to the states that allow sports betting, several states have laws that make office pools legal, including Connecticut (where small pools done not-for-profit are legal) and Vermont (with some small pool stipulations like a maximum $20 entrance fee and a limit of 100 participants).

Reasons to allow it

Beyond the non-enforcement issue, there may be some major benefits to allowing a March Madness pool in the office, including building camaraderie, community and morale among colleagues.
Perhaps surprisingly, some managers feel the same way. One in five supervisors said that NCAA basketball tournament festivities in the office — including competitions and watching game highlights — positively affects morale and productivity. Only 4 % saw them as negative.
That’s according to new research from Office Team.

March Madness policy tips

OK, so allowing an intra-office March Madness pool is for all intents and purposes legal, and might in fact be good for your workplace. But that still doesn’t change the fact that those pools can negatively affect productivity and hurt companies overall.
So what’s the best middle ground?
Here are three tips on making sure you do March Madness right:

  • Stay on the right side of the law. Yes, it’s unlikely the cops are going to come bust down your door and arrest your CEO for allowing an intra-office pool. Still, there are some things you can do to make sure that what you do allow stays close to legal. Keep the pools on paper and not online. Ensure that no one under the age of 18 takes part. If money is involved, employees should keep the stakes low — say, no more than $20 a person. And make sure that all the money that goes into the betting goes back out to the winners — no cuts for employees who help organize everything.
    Better bet: Make sure things stay aboveboard by having the company organize and sponsor the pool. Allow anyone to take part for free and offer some prizes for the top three finalists.
  • Set up a TV. As mentioned, having a good chunk of your workforce streaming video of games on their computers isn’t going to help your servers very much. An alternative: Set up a TV in a conference room or the break room during lunch hours so staffers can watch the games without taxing your computer system — and, if they want, maybe cheer on their favorite teams. Just keep an eye out to make sure Jim from accounting doesn’t stay in there all day.
  • Relax your dress code. If you want to allow staff members to get more into the spirit, let workers wear clothing or other accessories for their favorite teams who are in the tournament.