Anita Bruzzese: Make sure March Madness is fun, not fanatic
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Who will make it to the NCAA Final Four this year?

Gonzaga University? The University of Kansas?

It's often anyone's guess who will take home the basketball crown, but trying to guess who it might be is one of the ways that the workplace becomes a little more lively this time of the year.

Bracket mania takes over the cubicles, as those with the latest scientific data go up against those who pick final teams based on deeply held beliefs in uniform color.

"It's always the time of year when the people who follow the game set their bracket and see them blown up," says Murat Philippe, director of workforce consulting services for Chicago-based Avatar HR Solutions. "And people who don't know anything end up doing the best."

Philippe says he's a proponent of letting March Madness invade the workplace, as long as it doesn't disrupt productivity.

"It's a welcome distraction after the kind of winter we've had," he says.

One in five managers that OfficeTeam recently surveyed seem to agree, noting that the March Madness of the annual college basketball tournament improves employee morale and engagement at least somewhat. Seventy-five percent of the 1,000 managers who responded to the survey say they don't think the bracket obsession affects the workplace at all.

"This [setting brackets] is something that is going to happen anyway, no matter what a company may say," Philippe says. "It doesn't really cost you a great deal, so you may as well saddle it up and ride it out."

OfficeTeam advises that any workplace willing to let employees have fun with March Madness set a few rules, such as granting workers quick breaks to check scores or talk about games with colleagues.

"Of course, you wouldn't want someone spending five hours a day looking at scores and games. But talking about it can bring a real levity and common bond among workers," Philippe says. "The pools are something everyone can talk about and be an icebreaker before a meeting. It's something everyone can bond over."

Other ways to increase engagement in the NCAA basketball tournament are allowing workers to wear team colors or T-shirts, and making sure leaders show a good-natured attitude toward competition, OfficeTeam suggests.

"This isn't a be-all and end-all thing," Philippe says. "But I think it can be something that fashions a workforce that works hard and plays hard."

Still, Philippe and others say that workplaces entering the bracket fray need to look at some legal considerations.

Bert Brannen, an Atlanta lawyer with Fisher & Phillips national labor and employment law firm that represents management, warns companies that employees who feel excluded from the bracket action might file discrimination claims. Another problem: Betting among co-workers may generate hard feelings instead of fun.

Last year Twitter users sent more than 2 million tweets about March Madness, and competition over brackets in the office could spur workers into taking their trash talking online, which might include trash talking their bosses, Brannen says.

If employers allow some March Madness at work, Brannen suggests forbidding them from using company computers and only engaging in bracket mania during break times or outside the office.

Supervisors also should be discouraged from participating in the activity, he says.

Despite the legal reservations, March Madness is likely to take over many workplaces this year.

"I think it's important to keep in mind that as the economy improves, there is going to be employee turnover," Philippe says.

"If you can find ways to keep employees engaged and let them have some fun, then it's a lot cheaper to let them do this than trying to replace them when they leave" Philippe says.

Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107.