March Madness at work: We don't need no stinkin' brackets

There are three things that annoy me about March Madness:

•It draws people's attention away from the praiseworthy things I'm doing.

•I know that up until the NCAA basketball tournament's championship game April 2, co-workers will ask me "Hey, how's your bracket?" no fewer than 10,235,172 times.

•Every media outlet ever created will write about, talk about or yell about how employees distracted by March Madness cost companies $87 bazillion in productivity.

First, let me state for the record that I don't have a bracket. I don't follow college basketball, and I don't care who makes it to the Fabulous Fifteen or the Exceptional Eleven or whatever it's called.

That does not make me a bad person. (At least that's what my mom said.)

Second, I'm done with idle speculation about how March Madness affects the workplace. Depending on who you talk to, it costs companies a ton of money because everyone's checking scores all day or it's "a really great opportunity" to build company morale.

Pfffffttt!

The college basketball tournament has been around for a while, and it hasn't upended our economy or brought manufacturing to a screeching halt. It also hasn't proved to be an ideal way to unify a workforce, largely because there are people like me who think Gonzaga is some form of intestinal disease.

So maybe it's time for workplaces to become neutral on the subject of the big college hoops tournament.

In that spirit, here are two pragmatic March Madness tips:

•If you're dying to engage in a bracket-related conversation, first politely ask your co-worker whether she or he has filled one out. And if that person hasn't, don't respond by saying, "WHAT?!?! How can you not be into March Madness, it's THE BEST!!" That might prompt your co-worker to tell you about how he or she prefers writing "Desperate Housewives" fan fiction. And trust me, you don't want to go there.

•If you're a boss or manager, don't be a buzzkill about people paying attention to the tournament. It's going to happen. Limiting Internet access or banning iPads and cellphones is just going to create resentment. Show your workers that you trust them. And if someone is slacking too much, it will be apparent and you can talk directly to the individual.

Follow these simple tips, and I guarantee you'll turn March Madness into March Gladness. (I didn't just write that, did I?)

Now on to an interesting reader question:

Q: For many years, employees at my company were allowed to accumulate paid sick hours and carry them over each year. About five years ago, the company stopped letting us accumulate sick days but we were allowed to keep any we had "banked." We have been told that if we leave the company, we will lose the accumulated hours and not be paid for them. Is that legal?

A: It depends on where you live. In most states, employers don't have to pay employees for banked sick time when they leave the company, but some states do require varying degrees of compensation.

I spoke with Ron Chapman, an attorney and board member at the national labor and employment law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. "It's entirely a function of state law, and it will differ from state to state, which makes it very complicated for multistate employers to have a consistent policy," he said. As an example, he offered Texas, where accrued sick or vacation time is owed to the employee upon separation only if it's in writing.

This has become a vexing issue, particularly since the recession began. On the one hand, Chapman said, a company that has a "use-it-or-lose-it" policy is "basically going to encourage mass vacation or sick-day use before someone comes in and says they're leaving."

On the flip side, companies that allow workers to bank sick time for years can wind up paying out huge sums, a problem some state governments have been addressing. The New Jersey Legislature, for example, is considering proposals that would end or cap large end-of-career sick time payouts to government employees.

"A lot of companies, even if they have the right to create a straight-up use-it-or-lose-it policy, they'll reach a middle ground and say, 'We'll give you two weeks or something like that,'" Chapman said. "Some will only pay it out if you provide two weeks' notice of separation, so there's kind of an incentive to not just walk out."

Chapman said the best way to figure out how your state handles this issue is to check the website of the state labor department — or whatever agency oversees wage and unemployment claims — and look at the Frequently Asked Questions.

"Usually this is one of the primary questions listed because it comes up a lot," he said.

It's worth noting that Chapman did not ask me anything about NCAA brackets. So the man is OK in my book.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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