Jump Ball: The Surprising Impact of College Basketball on Company Social Media Policies

This time of year, our collective attention turns to...basketball. College basketball to be exact. That’s because the annual rite of passage known as March Madness – which culminates on the first Monday in April with “one shining moment” for the NCAA champion – has begun. With it comes office pools; games streaming from noon to midnight; internet searches to check scores or glean intel about that obscure school from Northern Iowa; and social media postings to brag about bracket successes (or admit dreaded defeat).

March Madness means a lot of activity on the hardwood, that’s for sure. But how does it impact the workplace? The short answer: a lot. Indeed, the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that one in five employees will participate in bracket pools this year, with a potential for $4 billion in lost workday productivity.

So what’s an employer to do?  One solution to minimize lost productivity is to promulgate and enforce policies prohibiting excessive use of company computers and internet service for personal reasons. This, of course, should be accompanied by a thorough explanation of the applicable rules with an important caveat – reasonable research to fill out brackets or check scores is permissible.

Really, the reasonable use of company computers for March Madness-related queries is okay? Shouldn’t companies adopt a zero-tolerance policy for bracket pools? According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the answer is an emphatic no. The firm suggests that efforts to suppress the “madness” would most likely result in long-term damage to employee morale, loyalty and engagement that would far outweigh any short-term benefit to productivity. But employees must understand that any bracket-based leniency must be dished out even-handedly in the months that follow the college basketball tournament. More to the point, companies that ease policies limiting or restricting personal use of computers (and even smartphones) should be liberal in their enforcement not only during March Madness, but also at other times as well. That’s because employers that turn the other cheek this time of year, yet clamp down when it comes to the use of workplace technology in connection with – say – soccer’s World Cup, Girl Scout cookie season or political conversation, may be setting themselves up for claims of discrimination or potential unfair labor practice charges from the NLRB.

There’s no question that if the only concern for business is productivity, a zero-tolerance policy prohibiting the personal use of company computers and internet service enforced year-round is preferable. However, the cost of such a restrictive on-the-job rule – a significant drop in employee morale and perhaps a longer-term dip in productivity – can’t be ignored. Alas, companies must weigh the “risk” of lower productivity and potential of discrimination claims for inconsistent enforcement against the “reward” of higher morale during the college tournament season. When all is said and done, this may be a “toss-up” for many employers, or perhaps more appropriately, a “jump ball.” Let the games begin.

This blog post is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.