Children run into the meeting room. Colleagues appearing for meetings in t-shirts and hats. A woman breastfeeding her child in full view during an important meeting on deck. Things that were unimaginable just a month ago have become a reality in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic. Working parents and their employers are challenged in ways they would never have expected, and that includes their nerves.
As most people work from home, video conferencing is becoming more common and raises a number of questions about what is and what isn't. A Reddit user recently shared his own video conference call asking, "Am I the A ** hole?"
The dilemma went viral and the audience seemed divided. While some have no problem with a mother breastfeeding her baby during a virtual meeting, others found the behavior absolutely horrific. So what's the ball? In today's work environment, should a mother be able to breastfeed her baby while attending a video conference?
First, their rights. Although the mother and child were at home in their own private area, they were visible through the zoom meeting, which could be viewed as a public forum. Regardless, public breastfeeding is legal and protected in all 50 states. A mother can breastfeed her baby when her baby is hungry in public. And at work, federal law requires employees to express their breast milk as needed. Therefore, the mother had the right to breastfeed during the meeting. But should she have turned off her camera?
The nursing mother preferred to stay in front of the camera during the zoom meeting. Was she wrong?
In the meantime, many of us have had first-hand experience with virtual meetings and realized that people who are not in front of the camera are less involved in the discussions. The ability to not only see colleagues but also to be seen is a very important part of the process. In today's work-from-home environment, these are our ways of presenting our ideas and highlighting our contributions. Studies show that around 65% of communication is non-verbal. Without video, emotional clues from facial expressions and body language are overlooked. To prevent the nursing mother from attending the meeting in front of the camera would reduce her chance of being seen and heard.
Women have fought long and hard to have a place at the table and a voice at work. If you ask the nursing mother to muffle that voice by turning off her video, she will be brought to uneven ground during the zoom meeting. While it may seem like a small question to many, it is this slippery tendency to ask breastfeeding women to take private care of their children's needs, which has held mothers in the workplace and created a history of breastfeeding disgrace.
But what about the "rights" of your employees? Do you need to be breastfeeding?
Discrimination laws at work are designed to protect certain groups of people, to ensure that they are treated equally and that employee sensitivity is irrelevant. Discrimination in the workplace is defined as treatment or a suggestion to treat someone in the workplace unfavorably due to a legally protected personal characteristic. Because breastfeeding is a pregnancy-related illness, breastfeeding employees are a protected class of employees. The employee's private message could therefore be interpreted as a discriminatory act.
As an employer, we need to be careful and ensure that not only our managers, but also employees, recognize that their behavior from home (in this case, a private message to the nursing mother) can create an offensive work environment that hinders collaboration and Growth. While the work-from-home environment is new to many employers, it is important to recognize that the culture that we are now creating outside of the office is what distinguishes our companies after the pandemic. Working parenting has never been as difficult as it is today, and working parents deserve our support.
The breastfeeding mother's participation in the video should have been welcomed. The fact that this breastfeeding mother can feed the next generation of workers while undertaking a zoom meeting shows her ability to multitask, and I say good for her! But as the Reddit comment above shows, this isn't obvious to everyone, and there was a big debate on every page of the topic that followed in the comments. So what can a company do?
As employees have difficulty creating new work-from-home protocols, employers' expectations need to be communicated. Employers need to recognize that working parents have many tasks and no childcare. Employers need to be flexible with working hours so that the focus is on what is done and not how or when it is done. And employers must set clear rules for communicating (phone, text, slack, email, zoom) with team members, which should include specific minutes for video conferencing meetings.
For example, if these employees had set up zoom protocols that would meet the requirements to minimize visual distractions, mute your microphone when not on a call, and adhere to the company's code of conduct, the nursing mother could have breastfeed her baby without sound while her employee was advised would be to comply with the company's existing anti-discrimination policies and acceptance for breastfeeding workers. To download a sample virtual meeting policy, visit mommawork.com/c19-support/.
The support and guidance we show our struggling team members today will, in fact, transfer as soon as we get back to the office. If done correctly, we can set a tone of inclusiveness and acceptance that promotes cooperation. We're there together, and it will take teamwork to get stronger, keep our jobs intact, and better position our businesses for tomorrow. So let's stop pecking our co-workers and extend this breastfeeding multitasking mother with a standing ovation.
Debi Yadegari is the founder and CEO of MommaWork. Formerly a lawyer on Wall Street, she is now a working parents' lawyer and a trusted authority on workplace wellbeing, breastfeeding accommodation law and working parenting. She is also a certified lactation consultant, parent expert and mother of five children.
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