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Businesses are bracing for March Madness

It's called "March Madness" for a reason. About 70 million people will likely try their hands at picking the winner of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, wagering more than $2 billion. That's roughly twice what was bet on the Super Bowl, according to data from the American Gaming Association, a trade group that's pushing to legalize sports betting.

Unfortunately, many wannabe soothsayers will try their hands at prognostication at work, which creates problems for businesses. Challenger, Grey & Christmas, a provider of executive outplacement search services, pegs the productivity loss at $1.9 billion.

Get your brackets out! March Madness is nearly here

"That figure may be on the conservative side, considering this year could garner a lot more interest from even casual basketball fans eager to see if Kentucky can continue its undefeated season through the tournament," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The Kentucky Wildcats are trying to become the first national champion with zero losses since Indiana did it in 1976. Challenger joked that employers in Kentucky -- home to Yum! Brands (YUM), which is the parent of KFC and Taco Bell, Papa John's (PAPA) and other major companies -- had better prepare themselves.

"If Kentucky plays their first tournament game during the workday, it wouldn't be shocking if every single working person in the state called in sick for the day or took an extra-long lunch break," Challenger quipped.

Many casual basketball fans also fancy themselves as foreseers of the future. A survey released Monday by job site CareerBuilder.com found that 1 out of 7 (15 percent) U.S. workers plan to participate in March Madness office pools. That's up from 11 percent from a year ago. Senior managers must have more faith in their predicative abilities than their underlings, with 27 percent of them participating according to CareerBuilder.

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Given that many workers are going to be distracted anyway, human resources experts recommend that businesses try to embrace the "madness" rather than fight it, within limits.

"The reality is if you take a hard-core approach to (March Madness) ... guess what -- the employees are going to find a way around it," said Mitzi Root, a spokeswoman for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), in an interview. Still, she added, employers need to set limits.

For instance, Root advises business that are leery about permitting gambling on their premises to encourage workers to donate their March Madness winnings to a charity of their choice or allow employees to dress festively in the gear of their favorite teams as long as they adhere to corporate dress codes. Companies will sometimes bring in extra TVs to break rooms for people to watch games without tying up their computer networks with bandwidth-hogging live streaming.

Even with minor hassles that the tournament creates, companies will find that a small investment in March Madness will pay off big in the long run.

"It goes a long way to improve employee morale," Root said.

The tournament, though, isn't a pathway to easy riches The odds of picking a "perfect bracket" are roughly 1 in 9.2 quadrillion, odds so steep that super-investor Warren Buffett even offered a $1 billion prize in a March Madness contest, but it was canceled this year.

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