How to ensure no-one’s on mute – managing bias on video calls

Despite lockdown easing and many planning a staggered or partial return to the office, homeworking and video calls will likely be a mainstay for many businesses. However, virtual meetings are not without their own headaches.

Many of us have endured over a year of people on mute, virtual backgrounds and dodgy wi-fi signals. As online meetings look set to stay, it would be wise for HR managers to think about how these meetings are managed and ensure policies are sufficiently up to date to deal with any issues.

There are a number of ways video calls can create bias. For one, it immediately opens the window into someone’s private life. We’ve all become much more familiar with our colleagues’ choice of artwork, books and paint colours than we ever thought possible. However, these personal glimpses can create bias – arguably you can get more of an idea into someone’s socio-economic background by seeing directly into their home.

A small, chaotic workspace or palatial mansion interior in the background automatically creates an impression of someone which you wouldn’t necessarily get when working from the office. In the same way, a poor wi-fi signal or home office set-up can also feed into an unconscious bias.

A switch to virtual meetings is a move that may suit some people, but many find the change hard to get on board with. Communicating as heads in boxes on a computer screen naturally means that people miss social cues and therefore it can be more difficult for some people to get their voice heard.

Zoom and other platforms usually let the users see their own faces which can add to feelings of self-awareness and perhaps less of an inclination to speak out in large online meetings.

For HR teams, being aware of these triggers for bias and managing them is vital to ensure inclusivity isn’t negatively impacted.

  • Create branded virtual backdrops – These can be downloaded and used across most video conferencing software platforms and help to immediately eliminate any impression or bias which might come from someone’s home working environment.

  • Support employees with equipment – Ensuring all employees who are working from home have access to the equipment they need to adequately work from home is important: noise-cancelling headphones and a quality microphone for example can mean any external noise disturbance is kept to a minimum. Offering support to finance better wi-fi can also improve and democratise homeworking for all.

  • Don’t let employees put themselves on mute – As mentioned, the new environment of online meetings can mean some employees are naturally more sidelined as they don’t feel comfortable speaking out or social anxieties take over. Carefully thinking about how to support these individuals and ensuring online meetings are inclusive is important. It may remove spontaneity to ask people to raise virtual hands to speak, but it does ensure that not only the loudest are heard.

  • Managing microaggressions – Linked to the previous point, it’s worth keeping an eye out for any microaggressions (whether intended or not), which can still play out over video and may even happen more regularly as people feel more removed from others. Addressing any problems head-on is important.

  • Think about recruitment – As the job market picks up in many sectors, it's likely we might continue to see interviews taking place over video. Putting in place watertight processes to ensure bias doesn’t creep into these interviews is important.

Video calls don’t suit everyone and this mode of communication creates a new window into employees’ personal lives. Bearing that in mind and ensuring in-person meetings or even an old-fashioned phone call takes their place when appropriate is also important.

Being aware that this form of communication will naturally create a degree of bias is vital for HR teams to be aware of, acknowledge and address. If more nuanced or large-scale changes are needed, diversity and inclusion consultants can advise.


Stuart Affleck is director at Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons Vario