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Religion, Politics and... Basketball? How to Navigate 3 March Madness Scenarios Professionally

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 16/03/2016 Vicki Salemi
BASKETBALL © Tar_Heel_Rob via Getty Images BASKETBALL

They say you should never talk about religion and politics during a job interview (or at the office for that matter!), but I think we need to add another important category: College hoops.
Things can get pretty heated this time of year. March Madness is a Catch 22: If you don't participate in brackets, you'll risk missing an opportunity to break the ice with an interviewer or gain a sense of camaraderie with your coworkers (and not to mention, good old fashioned fun.) But when you do participate, there's always potential backlash from intense, clashing rivalries.
According to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, last year an estimated 60 million employees participated in March Madness at work. If you're among the 60 million, there are ways to participate that can benefit you during the job hunt or at work. Here are several tips for professionally navigating three typical scenarios for a slam-dunk March Madness:
1. How to participate when you're a die-hard fan.
There's a fine line when it comes to participating in good fun. Think of it this way: exuberance to the point of painting your face belongs in the stadium, not the office or the interview room. If you're taking your passion for your team to that level at work, you should probably dial it down.
Of course, there's a time and place for everything. For instance, if you're watching the game with your work buddies at the local watering hole, feel free to sport your team's jersey.
As for when you're huddled around a conference room table at work, watching the game with your colleagues? It's fine to cheer and get involved. Throw in some good-old fashioned fist bumps to your coworkers when a top player makes a shot, but keep the over-the-top gloating to yourself.
Bottom line: It's okay for everyone to know which teams you're rooting for, but no it's not okay for them to feel like you'll go crazy if your team loses. And if your interviewer mentions they root for your team's rival, do your best to bite your tongue.
2. How to connect without rubbing people the wrong way.
"Tough loss last night, huh?" is not what you should say to your cube-mate who is silently weeping into his morning cup of Joe. Don't be that guy or gal who rubs a loss in your colleagues' faces, and don't gloat (too much) when your team wins. Same thing goes for an interview: It's OK to bring March Madness up if the topic feels relevant, but let the interviewer do most of the talking.
When you're outside the office, you can definitely put your full March Madness game face on. And yes, it's okay if you take (approved) PTO when your alma mater makes it to the Big Dance. But in the office? Think of it this way: When the president is inaugurated into office next January, you and your colleagues will probably pay attention, but won't get political about who you voted for -- you'll simply watch, together. Same goes for March Madness: When you're participating in an office bracket, it's not really about basketball. Most importantly, it's about team camaraderie and sharing something in common.
3. How to participate when you have no clue who's playing.
Yes, plenty of people fall into this category. Many of the 60 millions who participate in brackets don't really care who's in the tournament. But here's why they do pretend to care: It's fodder for small talk during interviews and a way to get involved in the water cooler buzz. Think of it like current events and the weather -- something you should be in the know about just because it's common ground for discussion. Even if you don't care about the weather forecast, chances are you looked it up prior to your interview so you could talk about pending rain during a lull in conversation.
All it takes to be relatively in-the-know is a quick Google search of "March Madness" and a glance at the headlines. That way, you can namedrop during an interview or with colleagues if the topic comes up. Chances are, if they're passionate about their team, you've opened the floodgates to a long conversation (which is a great thing with a hiring manager or boss!).
As for the really good part? Unlike needing to have an incredible answer to "What's your greatest weakness" during an interview, no one's holding you accountable. You don't have to be an expert, but if you're not at least part of the dialogue, you'll miss out on opportunities to connect.

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