Workplace Madness: Important HR Lessons from NCAA Basketball

The NCAA basketball tournament is over, and in many ways it was a classic, with great games, great upsets and great storylines. March Madness, indeed.

However, this year, much of the madness occurred off the court.

It started with the videotape of the unprofessional ranting of now-former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, who called his players every offensive name in the book, berated them, question their very being and flung basketballs at their heads. Rice’s trail of carnage includes former Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and former University general Counsel John Wolf. It included the “resignation” of Pac-12 Director of Officials Ed Rush, who suggested to his direct reports – the referees – that they punish one of the coaches in the league that Rush doesn’t like. And it included controversy over whether Baylor University women’s superstar Britney Griner is worthy of a tryout in the all-male NBA.

Each of these headline-dominating stories had troubling aspects, and each offers lessons for HR professionals:

  • No one is above the rules. Unlike the NBA, where superstars seem to have a different set of rules, the rules are the same for everyone in the workplace. Or at least they should be. Rice and Rush were in positions of authority and it seems their behavior suggests that they thought the rules did not apply to them. However, their careers came crashing down when their unprofessionalism was revealed. And for managers who go easy on superstar employees who behave badly, consider the plight of Rutgers Athletic Director Pernetti and General Counsel Wolf – both of whom were forced out when it was determined that they did not act sternly enough with Rice.
  • Everything is “on the record.” Rice was caught on video in the workplace. Rush thought he was safe because he was in a meeting with his “friends.” Nowhere is safe these days. All employees need to be careful of the way they conduct themselves, both inside and outside of work. In this day and age, someone’s always watching. And Human Resources professionals need to understand how to navigate it all, which can combine the sometimes sticky issues of morality, privacy and policy.
  • The myth of the non-defense. Too many people believe that they can use “I was just joking” as a defense. But it doesn’t work with harassment issues, just as it shouldn’t work with violence issues. Non-defenses are just that. Other favorite non-defenses: I didn’t mean any harm. It wasn’t directed at him (the person who brings the complaint). We are co-workers. I’m a very important person here!
  • The glass ceiling is still there, but it’s cracking. To a certain extent, comparing male and female athletes and male and female executives is a case of apples and oranges. However, let’s focus on the Dallas Mavericks’ iconoclastic owner Mark Cuban, who started the talk of Griner being a professional prospect by saying that he’d consider drafting her for his team. You can be cynical about Cuban’s motivations, but the notion that we should throw gender out the window when considering who to hire is a smart one. Forward-thinking, successful businesses aren’t constrained by old-fashioned business-think when it comes to acquiring the best talent. And that’s a message that should resonate with all HR managers.

Michael Cohen concentrates his practice in the areas of employment law training and counseling.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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