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A Lesson in the Unique Dangers of Telecommuting

posted 2 years ago

As one Liberal MP recently discovered, the comfort of working from home carries underappreciated and unexpected risks.

You may remember the Liberal Member of Parliament caught naked on camera back in April. William Amos, the member from Pontiac, Quebec, had returned from a jog and was purportedly unaware that his video camera was turned on during a parliament virtual question period.

The story made international headlines, reported by major news organizations like the BBC and CNN. It was the butt of jokes on U.S. late-night television talk shows. The scandal became an embarrassment not only to the Liberal party, but to Canada itself.

Stunningly, the same MP recently had a second private parts-related parliamentary video gaffe. One can do no better than Amos’ very own remorseful Tweet: “Last night, while attending House of Commons proceedings virtually, in a non-public setting, I urinated without realizing I was on camera.”

Once again, from the New York Times to the U.K. Guardian, the international press chortled about this second incident, in what surely competes with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India escapade as a new low for the reputation abroad of Canadian politicians.

Amos said he would step away from his role as Parliamentary Secretary and “seek assistance.” While no formal censure or discipline has yet been issued, one has to imagine Amos’ stock in the Liberal party has never been lower.

Amos’ faux pas are a stark reminder that the line between the office and the home is more blurred than ever. But that does not excuse any lack of vigilance or professionalism when working remotely. The Conservative party rightly castigated Amos as “reckless.” That is surely an understatement and, of course, there may be mental health issues involved.

The first incident may indeed have been an understandable, if avoidable, accident, and thus may not have constituted cause for discharge in an employment context. A second incident, if sufficiently embarrassing to the organization’s brand or harmful to other employees, could be cause for discharge, especially if the offending employee was sufficiently warned (and ideally, trained) after the first incident. Termination for cause must be proportionate to the misconduct.

On the other hand, Members of Parliament are held to a higher standard – an obvious analogy is to executives in any organization. If damage to the employer’s reputation and bottom line is significant, a single embarrassing video gaffe could conceivably constitute cause of discharge. This becomes increasingly possible as telecommuting becomes the norm and employees more accustomed to minding their cameras and mics.

Amos’ blunder took place in a somewhat unique context requiring a higher level of formal decorum than most workplaces. Nonetheless, any worker participating in a workplace function on camera is expected to conduct themselves appropriate to their particular workplace.

Incidents like those that befell Amos can cause problems beyond the moment in which it occurred and beyond the culpable individual. A Bloc MP took a screen grab of Amos during the first gaff and shared it, and the Bloc has now had to apologize and face Liberal scrutiny. As Liberal whip Mark Holland stated, taking and sharing the image “was potentially a criminal action” and a violation of human dignity. There was talk of a possible criminal investigation. Of course, this being politics, the Liberals may have been trying to divert attention from the initial infraction. But workplaces are political as well, and there may be many an employee ready, even anxious to exploit the blunders of another.

Any employee in an organization can record a video call, despite instructions to the contrary. A digital record is easily made and easily shared with the originator remaining anonymous. If the recording leaks, a company may face similar brand damage and distraction from productive work. A scandal can take on its own life, with companies having to put out multiple fires as a result.

Most employees don’t face the prospect of being “held in contempt of Parliament,” a fate considered for Amos. But they may be accused of making the workplace “unsafe” or uncomfortable, particularly in the absence of policies prohibiting what might be characterized as a poisoned work environment. Their employers can be held accountable as well — one opposition MP accused the Liberals of having failed in their duty to ensure a safe work environment following Amos’ first camera incident. Employees with thinner skins may object to such overexposure, demanding an employer response or proceeding to the media.

There has been a long list of accidental video gaffes by prominent figures around the world, many involving lewd sexual activity exceeding Amos’ peccadillos. No one is safe, and Canadian employees must be scrupulous in monitoring their behaviour whenever they are around a computer or cellphone with a recording option. Employers, for their part, should consider policies requiring employees to be judicious around cameras and computers, along with training.

Such policies and training will pay dividends when scandals like those facing the Liberal party are avoided.

By Howard Levitt and Justin Khorana-Medeiros. This article originally appeared in the Financial Post: https://financialpost.com/fp-work/howard-levitt-a-lesson-in-the-unique-dangers-of-telecommuting

Got a question about employment law during COVID-19? Write to Howard at [email protected].

Howard Levitt is senior partner of LSCS Law, employment and labour lawyers. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Justin Khorana-Medeirosis a lawyer at LSCS Law.

PHOTO BY ADRIAN WYLD /THE CANADIAN PRESS

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