March Madness at work raises questions of priorities, productivity

As offices dive into the inevitable $5 or $10 March Madness pools on Monday, the annual debate rages: Is the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament an enemy to worker productivity or a great way to boost office morale?

As many as 58 million people will participate in college hoops bracket challenges this year, indicating that the pools are widely accepted as a standard activity in the American workplace.

"I think it kind of brings people together," said Jeff Brown, a staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It gets people involved, and it's nice if you're new and you don't know a lot of people. It can be positive if you do it right."

Taking time to study a 65-team bracket and then carving out time to watch the 64 games -- including 49 this week -- is also part of the deal. Challenger, Grey and Christmas, an employment outplacement firm, estimates that office pools will create $1.8 billion in lost productivity this year, due to the average worker wasting 100 minutes in the first week alone of the tournament, which begins Tuesday.

But many workers, including Brown, said there's no way to prove those minutes would have been well-spent otherwise. Even the firm's CEO, John Challenger, calls the numbers a "blip on the productivity radar."

"In fact," Challenger says, "with worker stress and anxiety heightened, a little distraction could be just what the doctor ordered."

About one-third of companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management have policies that prohibit office pools, and some four percent have disciplined a worker for participating.

But this laid-back attitude belies the fact that pools are harshly condemned by the NCAA and are illegal throughout most of the country.

Anthony Mattia once ran an office pool while working for a government contractor serving the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington. He earned a warning after he posted the standings of the bracket challenge following the first weekend of games.

"The office manager passed by and said, 'This isn't for money is it?'" Mattia said. "That could have definitely gotten me in a lot of trouble."

Rick Neuheisel, the head football coach at UCLA, was fired from the University of Washington after playing in a high-stakes basketball pool with neighbors in 2003. A manager for AT&T in New Jersey was arrested in 2002 for taking a cut of pool proceeds that totaled several thousand dollars.

But workers don't appear to be too scared off by the notion of addiction, loss of productivity or a reprimand.

"It's probably a drain on things," said Sean Doran, a paralegal who has worked for several firms in Washington. "But I think you make up for it with morale and people liking each other."

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