Can an employee's actions on Zoom get them fired?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
Portrait of an attractive woman at the table with cup and laptop, book, notebook on it, grabbing her head. Bookshelf at the background, concept photo
While accidents happen, an employer's specific policy on conduct while at work should be applied to those working from home temporarily as a result of the pandemic, according to experts. Photo: Getty

The sudden transition to remote working has been stressful for many, but thankfully, technology fails have brought some moments of light relief.

There’s the boss who accidentally turned herself into a potato during a Microsoft Teams conference using a Snapchat filter, and the employee who was caught on the toilet after forgetting to turn off her camera. Another worker was spotted taking a quick shower by his confused colleagues and of course, there are the kids and pets who have made numerous guest appearances.

Last week, things went a step further when a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, legal expert Jeffrey Toobin, was allegedly caught masturbating during a Zoom work call.

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“I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera,” Toobin said in a statement on Monday about the situation, first reported by Vice. He added: “I apologise to my wife, family, friends and co-workers. I thought I had muted the Zoom video, I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me.”

A spokesperson for the magazine said in a statement that Toobin had been suspended while the incident was investigated.

Of course, accidentally turning yourself into a vegetable during a conference call is unlikely to get you fired. But is it possible to lose your job over a Zoom incident?

Andrew Willis, head of legal at the employment law, HR and health and safety firm Croner, says Toobin’s case is an extreme example of misconduct over a Zoom call. However, unprofessional behaviour occurring during work video calls can happen and employers need to be prepared for it.

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“With remote working comes new technologically forward ways of communicating amongst teams and with clients. This means implementing new voice and video calling tools such as Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams into employees' daily routines,” he says.

“However, it can be easy for employees to neglect their usual professionalism while working from home. Ultimately, remote working does not mean that employers cannot hold their staff to the same standards as they would be if they were in an office, or workplace, setting.”

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While accidents happen, Willis says an employer's specific policy on conduct while at work should be applied to those working from home temporarily as a result of the pandemic.

“Those who have a remote working contract and are not working from home as a result of the pandemic should already have an agreement in place as to the conduct expected from them while performing work for the employer,” he explains.

“Therefore, unless it has been previously agreed that a remote worker will be held to different standards of working, employers should treat all staff working from home as though they were in the main office setting.”

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Either way, all employees must have a written statement of employment terms and conditions which must contain disciplinary rules and procedures, Willis adds.

“It should be made clear that if a conduct agreement is not adhered to, there is a risk of disciplinary action, whether formal or informal,” he says. “Disciplinary rules and procedures underpin the employment relationship, providing an employer with an opportunity to set clear rules about the way its employees should behave and the standards it expects of them.”

But before getting to a stage where employers need to formally intervene, it’s important to take steps to manage any issues informally first.

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“Many first or minor instances of misconduct can be effectively dealt with informally by the employee's immediate line manager,” Willis says. “In an informal meeting between the manager and employee, the manager should aim to make the employee aware of the exact nature of the problem and why it is a problem, as well as seeking the employee's commitment to achieving some change or improvement.”

It’s essential to bear in mind that employees may be struggling with juggling remote working with childcare or other personal responsibilities, which can lead to interruptions on Zoom or Teams.

“More serious cases of misconduct may warrant a formal disciplinary action which could lead to a suspension — and later termination,” Willis says. “However, employers should take this on a case by case basis to not give a harsher response than necessary to any minor case of misconduct arising from voice or video calls.”