It’s an exciting time for basketball fans as the NCAA College Basketball tournament – March Madness - kicks off this week. My attention will be on my dad’s University of Virginia Cavaliers, the hometown Villanova Wildcats and St. Joe’s Hawks and potential draft picks for my Philadelphia 76ers. But no matter who your favorite picks are, there’s an undeniable joy and passion that takes hold of everyone who lives and breathes basketball. How this translates in the workplace can be complicated. Play by the rules and it could actually be a benefit. However, if you’re not careful, it could be a workplace nightmare.Millions of cubicles across America will be transformed into deep think-tanks as employees complete an important task at work: determining what teams to include on their brackets. It’s fun. It’s exciting – and it has absolutely nothing to do with work. Some HR managers see it as a distraction, but go along with it as long as does not disrupt productivity. Wide-ranging research suggests that March Madness participation can actually improve productivity in three ways:

  1. Morale: As people come out of the dark corners of their cubes and begin interacting with each other, it creates a happy environment to share creative ideas. And, we all know, happier employees work more productively.  
  2. Inclusiveness: When employees feel as if they are included in something, they unknowingly create an equalizer that has the power to transcend title and position. So, everyone feels like they belong and have something fun to which they can look forward.
  3. Engagement: Employees are not only engaged with each other, but they’re more engaged with their work. The fact is: March Madness brings out the best in most of us.

But March Madness doesn’t bring out the best in all of us. And for HR, it can be a month of violation after violation. The truth is: playing bracket pools in exchange for cash at work can be a serious HR infraction for three reasons:

  1. It’s arguably illegal gambling: Although I have never seen any government agency storm an organization for pools, the fact is, office team betting on college sports is only legal in the state of Nevada. A possible solution is to offer a gift card prize as opposed to cash. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.
  2. It can create division among employees: Employees put a lot of energy into brackets. But the reality is, not everyone participates. And for those who do not take part in it, a stigma can be created – one that causes dissention and unhealthy cliques in the workplace. Not good.
  3. It’s a drain on company resources: How many photocopies, internet searches, and discussions by the water cooler does it take to get through March Madness? I suspect a whole lot. And if HR managers – even those into basketball – were able to itemize the actual costs in March relative their employees, they may do a whole lot more than fire off jump shots.

The most important thing to remember is that people will continue to play brackets and will do it in the workplace. It is incumbent upon HR to find ways to keep employees engaged and to let them have some fun. But it’s also important to develop guidelines to avoid that HR catastrophe just waiting to happen.