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Wasting Time at Work: Do You Try to Stop the Madness or Just Go with It?

It’s March — the culmination of a long and productive season for the country’s top college basketball teams. It’s also the beginning of a less productive season in the workplace.

March Madness may serve to sharpen the focus of the athletes playing in the college championship tournament, but the Big Dance often has the opposite effect on employees. Projects and deadlines play second string to tournament brackets and office pools.

What’s an employer to do? Crack down on employees distracted by the games, or chalk it up to morale-building, maybe even sanction interest in the tournament with an official office pool to benefit a charity? Employers have to decide what’s best for their own situations, but they need to keep some basics in mind.

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Productivity and legal concerns
The big issue is job performance, says Dennis Merley, an attorney with Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon and Vogt, P.A. in Minneapolis. “Regardless of the games, you’ve got work to do,” he says. And if office pools and interest in games in general interfere with work, employers have to decide how to keep the workplace productive.

It’s not as simple as just watching for employees taking a long lunch or watching TV in the break room. Since so many employees have computers on their desks and smartphones in their pockets, it’s a losing battle to keep workers from checking scores and even watching a game in its entirety — all while on the clock.

A potential legal hazard for employers comes in the form of inconsistent supervision and enforcement of rules. It can be a problem if, “you have a policy of no gambling, but then the office sponsors $10 to get into the NCAA pool,” Merley says.

Also, employers need to be careful about disciplining employees for taking too many or too lengthy breaks at other times of the year but then are less diligent when everyone is caught up in the games. “Is it fair to do that if you’re going to let people take excessive lunches at tournament time?” Merley asks.

Rather than cracking down, some employers may even endorse interest in the games and use it as a fun way to build morale. “I’m sure there’s time wasted,” Merley says. “But there’s time wasting throughout the year. You can put it to good use for morale.”

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Paid to watch games?

Time and pay are other considerations. When exempt employees dribble away time on March Madness or anything else, “you really don’t have any options,” says Susan G. Fentin, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, Massachusetts. “They get paid full salary if they work any portion of the workweek. If you’ve got a senior vice president going online checking scores, there’s nothing you can do about that. With hourly employees, in theory, you could be docking their pay.” But proving the infraction and the cost of morale would be formidable.

Employers need to look at their policies, Fentin advises. “Do you have a policy saying employees can’t use the Internet for any purpose? The only thing worse than not having a policy is having a policy you don’t enforce.” It’s very rare to preclude all personal Internet use at work, she says.

Employers also have to look at whether employees consider their Internet use private. Most employers inform employees that the computer system and Internet access belongs to the employer, and employees shouldn’t expect their use of those systems to be private.

Fentin says employers need to look at their policies and make sure they’ve made it clear they have the right to monitor how employees use the Internet. From a morale standpoint, she says, an option might be for the employer to send out regular updates on the tournament so employees won’t feel the need to spend time checking in.

No matter how employers decide to handle March Madness, they need to be realistic about a crackdown. “If you say anybody spending time on the NCAA will be terminated, you’ll have nobody in the workforce next week,” Fentin says.

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Wasting time a year-round issue

Of course, it doesn’t have to be March for employees to find reasons to waste time at work. surveyed 3,200 people from February to March and found that 64 percent of respondents admitted going to nonwork-related websites every day during work time.

The survey results show that 39 percent said they spend one hour a week or less on nonwork-related web visits. Twenty-nine percent said they spend up to two hours a week, and 21 percent fessed up to wasting up to five hours a week. Just three percent said they spend 10 or more hours a week on personal tasks during work time.

What are all those people doing while they’re supposed to be working? Forty-one percent said they’re going on Facebook, and 37 percent said LinkedIn. The survey also found that 69 percent of the men in the group admitted using the Internet for personal use at work on a daily basis, compared to 62 percent of women.

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