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Working From Home During COVID-19: Employees May Face Discrimination From Participation in Videoconferences

By Allison Van Kampen

As the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis continues, many companies have arranged for significant portions of their workforce to perform their jobs remotely. The physical delineation between work and home has been blurred, and videoconferencing tools to virtually connect with coworkers and clients are a fact of work and home life. Unfortunately, giving managers and colleagues glimpses into your private world, images, messages, and even people in the background can lead to discrimination, harassment, and adverse treatment.

Work-From-Home Online Meetings Are the New Normal

The pandemic has necessitated that many workers in the U.S. and elsewhere perform their jobs remotely. Zoom, Google Meet, Facetime, Bluejeans, Microsoft Teams, and other videoconferencing platforms are the new conference rooms and water coolers where employees convene to communicate with one another.

Lack of familiarity with online meeting tools has been a regular source of amusement and "fails," such as the now-infamous Potato Head manager, #poorjennifer's cringeworthy trip to the bathroom, and children's and spouse's embarrassing interruptions. Other times, however, having your (or a coworker's) home life on screen can implicate more serious concerns, including a greater potential for discrimination.

Inadvertently Pulling Back the Curtain

State and federal employment laws prohibit discrimination based on certain attributes, traits, and beliefs. Some protected characteristics, such as race or a visible disability, are apparent and can lead to discrimination. Others, however, including sexual orientation, religion, or caregiver status, can be less visible and may only become known through an employee's voluntary disclosure. With work-from-home (or WFH) videoconferencing, the risk of discrimination has increased because of employers' views into employees' home lives, and the possibility of involuntary disclosure.

Consider these scenarios that could occur onscreen during an online meeting:

  • The employee's same-sex partner crosses in front of an LGBTQ rainbow flag hanging on the wall.
  • Through a doorway, participants can see an employee's disabled family member.
  • Religious images and icons are displayed in the background of the employee's home workspace.

In each instance, the employee has given access to new information about their protected status. Whether intentionally or because of implicit bias, a manager with this new knowledge might demote, discipline, or perhaps wrongfully terminate the employee.

Another scenario to consider:

  • A white supremacy banner pinned to the employee's wall is clearly identifiable to videoconference participants.

In this case, if you are uncomfortable with symbols or insignia you have seen, you could report those images to a human resources representative as racist or creating a toxic or hostile work environment.

Protect Yourself from Possible Discrimination

Even in this new WFH culture, the responsibility for safeguarding one's privacy falls on the individual. Although employers would be wise to consider how their anti-discrimination policies apply in the current environment and whether updates are necessary, if you are concerned about adverse treatment and discrimination, the ultimate burden is on you to prepare your surroundings.

Find out whether enabling your webcam is something your employer requires, or if it is optional. If your employer does not require you to use a webcam during a videoconference where audio communication is available, even if all other participants show themselves onscreen, you should not feel pressured to share a video of your home life if you fear it will lead to negative consequences.

If video is necessary for an online meeting, treat your videoconference area like an office. If you wouldn't display images and messages at work, don't show them on screen. Remove such items from the camera's view, reorient your work area and computer, or even hang a sheet or fabric to hide questionable items. Use or repurpose what you have, but try to ensure that your surroundings are as neutral as possible.

Workplace Issues in the Coronavirus Era

COVID-19 continues to alter our economy, our relationships, and our workplaces. Despite these unprecedented transformations, people fortunate enough to have kept their jobs face new interpretations and applications of employment laws. If you have questions about discrimination, harassment, or other workplace disputes, please contact us today. We are dedicated to monitoring changing rules and regulations and can help you protect and enforce your rights.