An employee who told his boss to “deal with it” after being caught drinking on a Zoom call must pay his former employer almost £10,000 after losing an employment tribunal appeal.
Doug Anderson was an engineer with RHEON labs when he was seen drinking beer during a video call.
When questioned about this by his line manager – who happened to be the company’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Brown, Andersen responded by telling him to “deal with it.”
The tribunal also heard that Andersen demonstrated further inappropriate behaviour in the meeting, specifically not contributing on matters he would be expected to contribute on, being cynical with laughter and, ultimately, turning off his camera.
He was given a final written warning following the incident, which occurred in March 2021 during the UK’s third national lockdown. He was suspended months later over his alleged behaviour towards university students who were on placement with RHEON.
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The students said Andersen, who was supposed to be their mentor, showed a “lack of care” and was “rude and negative".
Andersen was sacked following an investigation into his behaviour.
He launched an appeal process against RHEON Labs for unfair dismissal, but the employment judge ruled against him. Instead, he has been ordered to pay almost £10,000 to cover the company's legal bills for what was described as a ‘vexatious’ appeal claim.
Employment judge Abbott ruled: “On the afternoon of Friday 5 March 2021 an incident took place on a company Zoom meeting."
“Mr Andersen was observed to be drinking beer on the call and was challenged by Mr Brown.
“I find Mr Brown's evidence that Mr Andersen responded along the lines of "deal with it" to be a reliable account.”
The judge said that his drinking on a Zoom call was “inappropriate”, and ruled his sacking was fair.
He must pay £9,965 in costs to RHEON.
The perils of poor digital etiquette
Andersen is far from the first employee to face the repercussions of their behaviour during digital work events. In fact, a quarter of bosses have admitted to sacking an employee because of a ‘Zoom blunder’.
The study from Wakefield Research, which questioned more than 200 US executives with a minimum seniority of Vice President at companies of 500+ employees, found that one in four bosses had indeed dismissed a worker over a mistake they made on a video call.
83% of those surveyed said workers have been disciplined for mistakes in company video or audio meetings. Measures included losing the responsibility of steering a meeting or formal and informal reprimands. One-third were removed from projects, according to the findings.
Additionally, 91% of respondents reported some kind of mishap that interfered with a virtual meeting, including not being able to share information or employees showing up late because of technical glitches, according to the survey which was commissioned by Vyopta.
Such glitches can mean lost business, the researchers found. Around 42% of bosses blamed employees for such mishaps, according to the survey.
Did standards drop for remote workers during the pandemic?
While Andersen’s behaviour is bizarre and unprofessional under any circumstances, it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone would have acted the way he did if they were in a face-to-face meeting in the office. When the line between home and work life became increasingly blurred at the height of the pandemic, some workers made headlines after seemingly lowering their professional standards when it came to remote working.
In 2021, a CEO was sacked after reportedly popping to the toilet during a virtual meeting with colleagues where he is said to have showed his bottom as a prank.
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A WIRED article that same year detailed that during a company Zoom call, a Canadian school trustee decided to light a cigarette. The publication reported that his work colleagues were so appalled that many called for his resignation.
In addition to this, the school trustee appeared to be sipping from a wine glass on camera and at one point appeared to nod off.
HR’s role in code of conduct for hybrid and remote workers
At some point or another, every remote worker will have slipped off unannounced to put on a load of laundry or fill the kettle for the umpteenth time. Maybe they’ve even done a bit of online shopping while attending a Zoom call.
But when these actions bleed over into a lack of professionalism, how do HR leaders explicitly detail the repercussions of inappropriate behaviour?
Andrew Willis, Head of Legal at Croner previously told HR Grapevine: “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.
“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.”
He pointed out that if a conduct agreement is not adhered to, staff members could be at risk of disciplinary action, whether that’s formal or informal. This should be clearly laid out in a written statement for employees that outlines “employment terms and conditions which must contain disciplinary rules and procedures or refer the employee to some other easily accessible document containing those rules and procedures,” he explained.
Should staff be sacked?
Willis stated that remote working does not mean employers and HR cannot hold their staff to the same standards they would expect in the workplace.
He added: “More serious cases of misconduct may warrant a formal disciplinary action which could lead to a suspension – and later termination.” While this may be a possibility, he also adds a caveat that HR and employers should be mindful of the situation and take each scenario on a “case-by-case basis”.