Social Media + March = Madness in the Workplace

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Social Media + March = Madness in the Workplace

It’s that time of year again!  Sports fans of all ages, and particularly fans of college basketball, are gearing up for another round of March Madness, tipping off on March 17, 2015.  Before then, as soon as Selection Sunday concludes, millions of workers will be filling out tournament brackets.  Unlike years past, however, more of these office pool competitors will be using social media, smartphone apps, hashtags, and electronic resources instead of the antiquated No. 2 pencil and paper.

According to a post by Jen Riddle on the salesforce.com marketing cloud, in 2014 there were almost “5.6 million March Madness mentions on social media — that’s more than 250,000 mentions per day!”  She also reported that #MarchMadness had more than 88,000 mentions, #FinalFour had more than 66,000 mentions, and #ncaa had nearly 32,000 mentions.  Two years ago, a post here focused on the IT, employee productivity and employee morale issues regarding March Madness in the workplace.  Undoubtedly, employers will face decreased productivity from distracted employees who are watching games, or at least checking for score updates, and posting about their victories and “bracket busters” on Facebook and other social media platforms.  Indeed, prior to last year’s tournament, Challenger Gray & Christmas, Inc. estimated that 50 million Americans would participate in a March Madness office pool, and that the 2014 March Madness distraction would cost at least $ 1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament.

This post will not repeat the analysis of those topics from the March 2013 post.  Since then, however, during major sporting events like March Madness, the Superbowl, and the World Cup, employee use of social media and technology has continued to increase dramatically.  This increased interest and use of social media surrounding major public events, however, can leave some employees on the sidelines and feeling marginalized (or worse) in the workplace.  Employers should be aware of some of these not-so-obvious pitfalls to March Madness.

Trash Talking Can Lead To Larger Issues

Whether in-person or via social media posts, co-workers often engage in friendly banter and trash talking during March Madness.  When competitive banter turns into something more serious, however, employers are left dealing with situations that damage employee morale, or that give rise to claims of bullying, abusive behavior, and/or harassment.  Most employers have an anti-harassment policy, and/or a code of conduct in an Employee Handbook.  Over-the-top trash talking about a basketball game (just like any other topic) can lead to violations of these policies.  An employer should take steps in advance of March Madness to get these policies in place, and remind employees that friendly competition can be good for morale and the work environment, however, heated exchanges whether on-line or in-person can have the opposite effect and contribute to a sense of bullying and harassment.  This is particularly true now that some jurisdictions are focusing more on preventing “bullying” in the workplace.  For example, California just enacted a law where “anti-bullying” must be included in the mandatory sexual harassment training that employers with more than 50 employees must provide to managers.

Potential Discrimination

Some employees will affirmatively choose not to participate in any form of gambling, including March Madness pools, due to religious or moral beliefs.  They may feel sidelined or unintentionally ostracized due to their lack of participation.  Employers should keep an eye open for those who appear annoyed, or upset by the distraction their co-workers are causing and engaging in during the month.  Employers should take further steps to reduce potential claims that any employee is being treated differently than others due to a religious belief.  Obviously, an employer should not make participation mandatory (or even condone peer pressure), and should not take any adverse action against an employee based on their choice not to participate in the office pool.

There may also be other employees who are battling an addiction to gambling.  While a gambling addiction may not be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some state laws may consider gambling addiction a condition covered by anti-discrimination laws.  Additionally, gambling and March Madness can often uncover other conditions, including mental illness, depression and/or anxiety, which collectively or separately, could be covered by the ADA and/or state disability discrimination laws.  As a result, as with religious beliefs, employers should be careful to recognize when an employee may be overly addicted to and/or reliant upon social media and/or gambling.

Retaliation

Additionally, some employees may complain about the lack of productivity, follow-through, and/or attention to detail demonstrated by their coworkers who are absorbed by March Madness.  They may feel resentful that they are doing all the work while other employees are on social media checking their brackets, and watching games, and thus, complain to managers about it.  Employers should be sure to discipline employees uniformly for lack of productivity, failure to remain on task, and/or abuse of social media and/or time away from work duties.  Similarly, and perhaps more significantly, other employees may become “whistleblowers” and make complaints about actual or perceived illegal gambling.  Employers need to be prepared for handling such complaints appropriately so as to avoid claims of retaliation.

Conclusion

While March Madness can bring employees together in friendly banter and competition, it can also disrupt workplaces in several ways including lost productivity, over-use of company data resources and technology, discrimination, bullying and retaliation.  The ubiquitous use of social media only makes these potential pitfalls even more likely.  March Madness, and other such events, will not disappear, so employers should take the time to plan ahead to put policies and plans in place in dealing with social media use, March Madness, and workplace issues.

Information provided on this website is not legal advice, nor should you act on anything stated in this article without conferring with the Author or other legal counsel regarding your specific situation.  No attorney-client relationship is created via this website.

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