Are You Ready For Some (Fantasy) Football Your Employees Probably Are

By Charles Caulkins

Oct. 22, 2006

Most business owners and managers can’t wait until fall rolls around. With the distractions of summer in the past, employees can turn their undivided attention back to productive work. But for an ever-growing segment of the workforce, fall marks the beginning of one of the most distracting periods of the year: football season—and more specifically, fantasy football season.

Sports have long been a distraction for much of the workforce, but the advent of the Internet and the prevalence of e-mail communications have led to a mushrooming of this trend. Twenty years ago, the worst an employer would probably face is water-cooler talk about the weekend’s games on Monday morning, and a Super Bowl pool in late January.

Now, however, employers have to worry about employees using work time and company computers to manage their fantasy football teams throughout the week. How worried should employers be? And what can be done about it?

The main concern for employers is the loss of productivity caused by football-related activities. (Now that Congress has made offshore gambling Web sites illegal under federal law, the issue of their use in the workplace warrants an article all its own.)

It has been estimated that 20 million to 40 million American workers played fantasy football in 2005, and the number was expected to rise for the 2006 season. These same reports estimate that the average fantasy football participant spends about one hour each workweek on this pastime. While each workplace may see varying effects, the total impact on the national economy is said to be about $1.1 billion each week from September through January.

Employers have some choices in how to deal with fantasy football. They can decide to take a hard-line “old school” approach, or they can try to be more flexible and accommodate their employees’ fixation.

Employers, of course, have the right to strictly enforce a non-recreational Internet use policy and monitor employee usage to ensure that workers stick to work while at their desks. Employers have every right to expect employees to devote 100 percent of their energies to the job during working hours and, as long as they act consistently, can fire employees who play fantasy sports instead of working.

Hard-line employers can rule with an iron fist if they choose, but they will want to make sure that these expectations are clearly spelled out in written company policies distributed to all employees—and that should include top management.

However, a newer breed of employer recognizes that workers will inevitably spend some time surfing the Internet, or using it to handle personal business.

According to this philosophy, you shouldn’t be so worried about the estimates of work time lost to fantasy football. Employees rarely spend their entire 40-hour workweeks strictly on work. If they aren’t participating in fantasy football, they would be wasting work time doing something else. And while flexible employers still prohibit the viewing of offensive Web sites, they ignore fantasy football activity so long as work objectives are being met. This kinder, gentler manager might even encourage team-building and company morale by starting a company fantasy football league.

An employer who wants to find a middle ground might limit employees’ personal Internet use while at work, using restrictive software to either limit their time to two hours per week or allow access only to certain Web sites.

Either way, companies should decide how to handle the current football season so that it can be addressed in a consistent manner, and should outline their expectations clearly for all employees.

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