4 Ways Legal Problems are Created from Virtual Meetings

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Attorney Harrison Oldham

Part of the job of an HR professional is staying apprised of the ever-changing workplace landscape; that has never been truer (or more difficult) than it is in 2020. With widespread quarantines and travel restrictions, the employer/employee relationship is being tested in ways many of us never thought possible.

However, amongst all the changes, one thing that is probably safe to say is that virtual and remote workers are here to stay – at least for now.  And because Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings are not going anywhere, experts are now saying employers need to be on alert for various ways harassment and discrimination can creep into the virtual workplace. Experts say workers are facing discrimination, bullying, and harassment in online spaces just as much as they did in the conference room. Phillippe Weis, head of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s compliance department says, “We have, perhaps not surprisingly, seen a dramatic spike in calls with concerns about online misconduct and disrespect”. Other HR professionals have states that discrimination is surfacing in unprecedented ways online.

If you, like many others, are now living in a virtual workplace, then you need to be on the lookout for possible harassment and discrimination, just like when you are working in the office. Specifically, here are four ways teleconferencing can lead to unlawful harassment and discrimination:

  1. Mockery Inside Chats

Remote meetings usually mean that employees are physically separated and are forced to view each other on a grid with their co-workers. However, what we are learning is that videoconferencing and virtual calls can create a platform and opportunity for employees to be offensive.  While on remote calls, users tend to feel bolder/safer sitting behind their computer screen. “Using videoconferencing and Zoom, almost lends itself to giving people a platform to be offensive”, Phillippe Weis said.  An off-color remark that would never appear in the office, can easily pass as part of a virtual conversation.

In addition, besides straight forward rude commentary, there are also additional side chat features that employees can utilize to have private discussions. I have specifically been involved in several requests from employers about how to reconcile instances when workers are using side chats during a remote meeting to make fun of their colleagues. In addition, Mr. Weiss stated that “We’re seeing all kinds of comments on physical appearance and jokes and nicknames based on physical appearance,”.  With this new threat, it is important to update company policies and educate employees on the way online interactions can be problematic.

  1. Age Bias

Experts say that critiques about older worker’s ability to use technology can be considered age discrimination. For instance, if an older colleague is having trouble unmuting themselves or cannot get their camera to work, someone else might make a stray remark like “Come on Grandpa!” or, “You’re so old!” Even if the stray remark is followed up with an “I’m just kidding” it might be too little too late and if it comes to an EEOC claim, will not be a valid excuse. If that kind of commentary would not be permitted in the workplace, it should not be permitted online.

  1. Room Décor Distractions

Employment lawyers say a colleague’s background during a teleconference has created a cascade of questions. Although we have all seen where someone on camera has turned themselves into a potato or put a cool car in the background, what happens when an employee puts up a religious icon, political imagery, or other personal/non-professional items on display.

While many of us believe there are some obvious ground rules about video calls, those rules are clearly not obvious to everyone. An easy piece of advice for employees is to have them think about their workplace; if they would not hang an item on the wall or display it in their office – don’t put it into the Zoom background.

  1. Stereotypes Deny Women a Seat at the Virtual Table

Before the pandemic started, women have been penalized in the workplace based on the perception that they have more responsibilities at home than their male counterparts. Experts say that this type of bias is amplified now that women are working remotely. Women are excluded from teleconferences or passed over for assignments because of this gender bias according to Louis L. Chodoff of Ballard Spahr who says he has witnessed this disparity in action: Leaders in the workplace have inappropriately assumed that females working at home are not able to do more because of this perception that they are the ones dealing with children at home.

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About Harrison Oldham


Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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