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Published: Thursday, 3/20/2003

`March Madness' praised as morale boost

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Employees of many firms will step away from fax machines and e-mail “send” icons briefly the next three weeks to join in March Madness. And now, in a light-hearted survey, a workplace consulting firm has calculated that college basketball mania could cost U.S. companies $1.4 billion in lost productivity.

“It's a good thing for companies,” insisted consultant John Challenger, whose Chicago firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., made the calculation.

“With war about ready to break loose, the threat of terrorism at home, and economic malaise, people certainly need something to take their minds off of all of that.”

And bosses locally don't seem to mind, with most winking at, or praising as a morale-booster, the office banter, alumni trash talk, and office pools that accompany the National Collegiate Athletic Association national tournament each year.

The tournament is probably the most workplace-centered sporting event in college and professional sports, said Mr. Challenger, who notes that the tournament lasts three weeks, that many games are during the workday, and that office workers - at least - can view the games over the Internet.

His firm, which specializes in outplacement services, calculates that fans will spend an average of 10 minutes each workday talking about the tournament at a cost of $2.56 each to their employers, based on the average national wage of $15.38 an hour.

There are nearly 136 million workers in the United States. Not all are interested in the tournament. But counting only the 36.6 million college graduates - who may be more likely to follow game outcomes especially if their alma maters are playing - losses equal $93.8 million a day, or $1.4 billion over the 15 working days on which games will be held.

The survey is far from scientific, Mr. Challenger conceded.

Still, Mike Hart, president of the Maumee public relations firm Hart Associates, isn't concerned that the basketball championship is distracting employees from their work.

Employees organized two pools, one of them for game aficionados that requires entrants to pick winners of each game in every round and the other for novices who pick a tournament champion out of a hat.

“We work very hard,” he said. “In today's world, as stressful as life is, I encourage people to do what they can to enjoy themselves in the workplace.”

Besides, he added, the tournament and pools inject competition into the workplace and “people in business are all about competing.”

Jack Hollister, president of Toledo's nonprofit Employers' Association, said firms are probably best advised to ignore the banter and technically-illegal betting pools.

“The downside of trying to crack down is that, while you may save the time, you probably won't get the productivity back because of the damage to the morale of the folks involved.

“As long as it doesn't overtake the workday, it may have some positive effect because it's a diversion from what's going on now.”

At Archbold Furniture Co. in West Unity, Ohio, a few of the 75 assembly line workers are following the games and participating in pools.

“It's nothing destructive,” said Patrick McNamara, co-owner. “Nobody's stopping work on the assembly line to fill out brackets. It's actually a good morale-builder.”

Owens Corning, the Toledo-based building materials manufacturer, is encouraging employees and customers to take an interest in the company-sponsored National Invitational Tournament, a contest for top college teams not invited to the big tournament.

Announcers from ESPN, which is televising the games, were on hand last week at a launch party at Toledo headquarters for employees. OC employees, along with customers and others, can win a big-screen TV by picking the winners of each round in a contest on OC's Web site.



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