You’re Fired—for a Mistake on Zoom

A surprising 24% of executives say their firms have dismissed staffers for mistakes on virtual meetings, as office professionalism collides with remote work.

In the early part of the pandemic, it seemed that nearly everyone made some sort of gaffe during virtual meetings. Who didn’t laugh when dogs ran around in the background or a coworker went through an entire presentation with the microphone still on mute?

It turns out a lot of managers haven’t found much of it funny at all. In a new survey with a shocking result, 24% of executives said their company has fired a staff member for an “audio or video call error.” In total, 83% said their organization has disciplined employees for the mistakes, in one form or another.

The numbers sound high, says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory, but at this point, after 18 months of working at home, bosses may be losing patience with the troubles that arise from many of their employees working remotely. “At least some of it is bosses wanting a higher level of professionalism,” he says. The numbers may be a wake-up call for employees up and down the corporate ladder who, after working remotely during the pandemic, are looking to continue to do so, at least part of the time, even after the pandemic fades.

The survey, by the workplace data analytics firm Vyopta, polled 200 senior US executives working at companies with at least 500 employees. About 40% of bosses said their firms gave out formal reprimands to offending employees, and one-third saw team members taken off projects because of their mistakes. Some executives complained that mistakes resulted in rescheduled meetings, missed project headlines, and even lost clients or business opportunities.

Experts say there certainly are mistakes and errors of judgment that employees make on meetings that should be called out and even disciplined. Demeaning or racist behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, for instance. At the same time, even mundane mistakes, such as showing up late, having a bad internet connection, or not knowing when to use the mute button could wind up irritating coworkers and clients alike, potentially losing sales opportunities and missing deadlines. One particular problem involves some people on the call—before the meeting officially starts—discussing sensitive information that shouldn’t be talked about in front of all the other call participants. “Often these breaches of etiquette have nothing to do with the meeting,” says Rick Sklarin, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Technology and Professional Services practices. “That happens all the time.”

At the start of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of office workers, bosses included, were not trained to do many of their meetings remotely. The learning curve was steep for some, and for a time not everyone had the best technology available to them. But at this point, virtual meetings are part of many people’s remote workdays. Zoom, the online meeting software firm, says it has 300 million daily meeting participants, up from 10 million before the pandemic. Microsoft says it has 250 million monthly users of Teams, its video and audio communication software.

That ubiquity has some managers demanding that meetings be as professional and productive as possible. Sklarin says that claiming a mistake on a call was technology-related is the equivalent of saying “My dog ate my homework.” “Either the tech is working or you know how to find the resources to get it to work,” he says.

Royal says one problem may be that bosses aren’t communicating how they want meetings to be run to their team members. Not every firm or boss has done this, even this far into the era of remote work. Bosses can tell their direct reports that they should take accountability and lay out what standards they should adhere to on calls, Royal says. If a boss has communicated what he or she wants and the group has agreed on expectations, then it’s OK if the boss gets frustrated when someone slips up.