Everybody in our office is still working at home due to COVID.

The other day, I had a Zoom call with several people in the organization. Not thinking about it, I was smoking a cigarette while my video was on. Somebody joked about it, and I apologized and put out the cigarette.

Today, I got a formal notice from HR that I was receiving a citation for smoking in the office. They emphasized that the company has a strict tobacco free policy. They also attached a long list of all of the health consequences of smoking (which of course, I'm already aware of).

I called HR and asked for clarification, because I was not in the office. In fact, I've started this job recently and have NEVER been in the office. They said that because everybody is working from home, my home counts as my office while I'm working.

Is this actually a thing? Can a company really get me in trouble for this? It's not like I was drunk on the job; I was merely smoking a cigarette from my own home while on a work call.

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    – Lilienthal
    May 28, 2020 at 10:13
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    I don’t think the title is a very accurate summary of the question - shouldn’t it be “Can I get in trouble for smoking on a work video call?”?
    – Tim
    May 28, 2020 at 18:14
  • 6
    are they aware that you're also several times a day naked in the office then? You might also have sex in the office sometime... be careful :-)
    – Laurent S.
    May 29, 2020 at 11:21
  • 2
    Why don't you just politely ask HR for clarification...?
    – Jason C
    May 29, 2020 at 23:49
  • 10
    Personnaly I would be more concerned about colleagues ratting me out to HR... Jun 1, 2020 at 15:54

12 Answers 12


Is this actually a thing? Can a company really get me in trouble for this?

Since you are living and working in the US, yes they can. Chances are, they can fire you for any reason or none at all (depending on your local state laws).

Their "your home is our office" argument is absurd, but being a smoker is not a protected class and doing it on company time, whether it's in your home or their office, might get you reprimanded even in countries with worker protection laws that live up to their name.

  • 2
    Is this true that you can get reprimanded for no valid reason? It's true that a worker can be fired for no reason in "at-will jurisdiction" but making their life miserable and creating hostile working environment, especially in one's home, might still not be legal.
    – luk32
    Jun 2, 2020 at 19:52
  • Feel free to find the applicable law and/or maybe a case in which the employer lost trying to ban smoking on company time.
    – nvoigt
    Jun 2, 2020 at 19:58
  • Fair enough. But it's not so straight. My quick research says there are state level rights to privacy at the work place. They technically allow you to smoke on breaks, which might still be paid, obviously not on work time, but that's because you either are on non-smoking premise or not working which doesn't seem to happen here. I hope we can agree it's interesting law case, that might be tried soon since the massive increase in remote/home work.
    – luk32
    Jun 2, 2020 at 20:21
  • @luk32 Whether an employer can or can not prohibit smoking when the employee is not on the job and not on their property (whether that's on the weekend or they just went to grab something from a food truck in their lunch break or because the meeting ended and the employee forgot to turn of the camera on their break) is certainly up to a lot of different laws and it probably would be an interesting case. This is the OP smoking at their designated workplace on company time. There is no wiggle room in this specific case.
    – nvoigt
    Jun 3, 2020 at 6:38

You also

  • were naked at the office
  • slept overnight at the office

and possibly

  • made an overly fragrant lunch at the office
  • brought your pet to the office
  • had sex or masturbated at the office

The argument that context doesn't matter is clearly absurd. None of the reasons they presented to you make any sense. (some people in the comments pointed out some slightly more compelling potential reasons but given that HR did not present you with them, I wouldn't consider them)

But this is not a battle you can win, regardless of whether you're right or not. Push it enough and you will either get fired or get a reputation as being unreasonable and difficult.

You clearly offended someone, enough for them to report you, even after your apology. Maybe it was the person who called you out, or maybe someone else.

It doesn't sound like the culture of somewhere I'd like to work: at least one intolerant idiot in your team, and a tactless HR who jump straight to the formal procedure for the first "violation" of a new joiner in an unprecedented situation. But maybe there are positives which counterbalance these things; only you can decide. If you decide to stay, you'll have to suck it up and try to move past it.

  • 48
    If you did most of those (possibly all, depending on company) while on a video call and they could see you I think there'd still be a problem.
    – gormadoc
    May 28, 2020 at 15:59
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    @gormadoc I thought someone might say something like this. Having sex at the office would be inappropriate regardless of whether anyone could actually see you, so following the same logic, it's inappropriate at home, regardless of whether anyone can you see you, right?
    – Michael
    May 28, 2020 at 16:26
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    So you think that the state of a location being an office (it's "office-ness") changes from one moment to the next based on OP's precise current activity? What happens if thoughts of work pop into his head during the throws of passion, is he working? Is a state of office-ness thereby incurred, making the intercourse an HR matter?
    – Michael
    May 28, 2020 at 18:20
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    I don't actually have to consider your scenario as it's beside the point: being on a video call with your coworkers for a meeting is certainly work.
    – gormadoc
    May 28, 2020 at 18:22
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    @mcalex Explains most of my break-ups and broken coffee tables
    – Michael
    May 29, 2020 at 9:20

I am rabidly anti-smoking, but I find their argument, as presented, absurd. To say that your office is a smoke-free workplace and since you are now working from home, your home is the office is outrageous.

Offices have non-smoking policies in their buildings to avoid polluting the indoor air in the workplace, and I'm glad they do. Back in the 1980's I worked in an office that allowed smoking at your desk, and it was awful. The building had poor air quality to begin with, and the cigarette smoke made it much worse.

However, when you work from your own home, the air quality of your home is your call. If you choose to smoke the health consequences are yours to deal with.

Had they said that smoking during video meetings is not allowed it would be a much more honest and legitimate argument. I am a manager, and would complain if any of my people smoked during a video conference because it is now considered unprofessional in the workplace, and projects a bad image. I would talk to the person and frame it that way, and ask the person to refrain from smoking during video meetings in the future. I would never presume to tell them that they could not smoke in their own house however.

(I'm friends with most of my co-workers, and might push on them to stop "driving nails into their coffins" since cigarettes kill a significant portion of their users over the years, but that would be a person-to-person message, not a manager to employee message.)

I don't know if your employer has legal grounds for their position or not. I'd suggest talking to a lawyer before deciding to fight it.

As a new employee, it's probably safest to just respond by apologizing, saying that you were not aware of the rules, and ask for documentation on those rules in order to avoid future accidental violations.

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    Welcome Duncan! Thanks for your answer; this one is the one with which I most agree in regards of sentiment, and since it specifically distinguishes the videocall -- which they do have a right to opine on -- from the space of your house -- to which they have no right at all. I would however suggest, that practical solutions (don't smoke during a videocall) may probably be cheaper & better than paying a lawyer.
    – Thomas W
    May 29, 2020 at 2:48
  • @ThomasW not smoking in meetings is cheaper, but it doesn't get the official warning removed from your record.
    – Erik
    May 29, 2020 at 11:22
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    This reminds me of my flights as a kid (in Europe in the late 70's, maybe up to early 80's) where rows 1-20 were for non-smokers and 21-40 were smoking. I was always curious about the magical barrier between rows 20 and 21. There were ashtrays in the armrest. IIRC cigars were either forbidden or frowned upon.
    – WoJ
    May 30, 2020 at 17:19
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    @WoJ probably air conditioning blew from front to back Aug 26, 2020 at 20:58
  • @TerryGlebnerr nah. They just pretended the smoke didn't travel. (They were wrong.)
    – Duncan C
    Aug 27, 2020 at 11:37

Can a company really get me in trouble for this?

Depending on your State and contract yes this could get you in trouble, and they could fire you if the laws apply.

Check your local laws and contract to be sure. I also suggest you check your employee's handbook to see what are the politics about smoking.

Is this actually a thing?

Well... they sent you a citation so yes this seems to be a thing to them.

Yes, it's a stretch to say that your home equals your office.

Regardless, smoking while on a Zoom meeting with your coworkers or clients is not professional, as you are on working hours and the video stream depicting you smoking is going through your company's channel.

I suggest that you avoid smoking while on Live meetings, or perhaps wait for the meeting to finish to go for a smoke. You could even turn off your video if you really can't wait for your smoke (just be sure that turning it off is allowed for that meeting).

  • 6
    I'd caution against smoking even with the video off. It's pretty easy to tell if someone is smoking just by the sound, and you should assume your mic is always on.
    – Kat
    May 28, 2020 at 2:51
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    @Kat yes it's risky, OP should avoid smoking at all when on video conferences
    – DarkCygnus
    May 28, 2020 at 17:55
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    +1 for the first answer that smoking in a video meeting is unprofessional. May 29, 2020 at 9:30

I can think of two reasons why they are completely justified in their reprimand:

  1. You receive any amount of "home office" materials/technologies/reimbursement: Yes, your computer you work on, your internet connection, and maybe even the room itself may be "theirs" in a loose sense if you take their money each month as a reimbursement for having your own home office. Cigarette smoke adheres to just about anything, and if you are using their equipment, they have a right to expect it be kept in a smoke-free environment.

  2. The minute you join a company provided meeting link, you and your office are represented to the other employees. Regardless of your position, other employees rely on you to accomplish their day-to-day work, and it sets a bad example to be seen smoking when all employees agreed to their rules before starting the position. HR can and must crack down on even the slightest of slipups.

The good news, you still have a job, and this will likely only be an real issue if it happens again. Put your head up high, and know you have a snitch on your team, so be careful!

  • 26
    "maybe even the room itself may be "theirs" in a loose sense if you take their money each month as a reimbursement for having your own home office" Eh, what are you basing that idea on? Nothing in OP post suggests reimbursement for home office to begin with. And then that wouldn't mean that the company owns part of OPs house.
    – Aida Paul
    May 27, 2020 at 18:04
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    Isn't the sole reason for disallowing smoking in the office, to protect coworkers from passive smoking? Or at least, it should be. (by the way, I'm a non-smoker, but still find the company's decision ludicrous)
    – Val
    May 28, 2020 at 4:22
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    @Val while I'm pretty much agreeing with you, no-smoking regulations can also protect hardware. Tobacco smoke can be sucked in by the PCs fan and impact the hardware if it happens over prolonged periods - or at the least make it very gross (and unhealthy) for the IT support guy having to open it at a later time.
    – user90896
    May 28, 2020 at 9:02
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    I agree with this answer in general. "Put your head up high, and know you have a snitch on your team, so be careful!" would get 2 or 3 votes from me if I could! Heck "know you have a snitch on your team" applies even once this craziness is over and you're back in the office.
    – FreeMan
    May 28, 2020 at 12:57
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    @Morfildur I have been that IT guy when smoking was still common in the office. I had to pull out the latex gloves on a daily basis. Mice, keyboards, screens, the computers themselves were all covered in a soot/nicotine film (and regular dust stuck to that film). Also on the inside. It gets everywhere. I never lost my lunch (I have a very strong stomach), but I came really close a couple of times. At least once a month one of my colleagues would puke. It was REALLY gross. One colleague once said he rather cleaned up roadkill without any gloves than dealing with some of these computers.
    – Tonny
    May 28, 2020 at 15:23

Is this actually a thing? Can a company really get me in trouble for this?

There may not be a right or wrong answer for this. Or maybe this isn't even written in any rulebook. But we are also currently living in an unusual time.

In this situation, I think the best approach would be to own it up and ensure to the HR and everyone else involved to make sure not to repeat something like this in future (at least not while you are on a video call).

A polite admittance and apology would actually look good on your side and it would make it easy for everybody else to accept it as you are in your home and this occurrence would no longer look as bad on you.

In fact, I've started this job recently and have NEVER been in the office.

It becomes more important as you have possibly not had a chance to interact with and build up an in-person relationship with the rest of the staff yet.


Another possible aspect might be health and safety at work. I think some of the recent legislation has been to protect employees from the dangers of smoke while working. This applies obviously to table staff in pubs etc but probably applies to any working environment.

In this case, the company is employing you to do work and if you were to become ill due to a smoke-filled office you might want to sue them.

I know it's a bit of a stretch but it might be part of the reasoning behind their position.

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    Tons of people who work at my office go on smoke breaks, and while they obviously go outside to do it they certainly wouldn't be allowed to sue the company if they got sick because of it. What possible standing could someone have for suing a company due to their own choice to smoke in their own home?
    – Kevin
    May 28, 2020 at 18:46
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    @KevinWells This isn't that far-fetched. Many companies are liable (either due to penalties under law or in terms of insurance) for actions their workers take while "on the job". This clearly includes the company premises themselves, but workplace health and safety laws (as an example - if they don't apply in your state then insurance regulations probably do) have evolved to include field work (e.g. linesmen) and also working from home. HR might be simplifying the case they're presenting, but they undoubtedly are aware of the laws/regulations they need to adhere to. May 29, 2020 at 7:00
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    @KevinWells As much as it seems absurd working from home at least in some jurisdictions comes with stupid amounts of caveats. We had to have all employees sign papers saying that they had adequate seating, and all kinds of other stuff at home when they were on Home Office during the Covid snafu. One of the main reasons we are careful about allowing HO is exactly because the employer is liable for tons of super stupid stuff. You make your own coffee and spill it on yourself and it's a work accident.
    – DRF
    May 29, 2020 at 8:22
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    I have no idea about the legal aspects here but the company is requiring people to work from home. Does their duty-of-care suddenly stop? It might go against common sense but my guess is they want to cover themselves.
    – paul
    May 29, 2020 at 9:29

Instead of smoking, let's suppose you were assembling a Lego puzzle while on video call. Would it be acceptable? It does not matter what you were doing if it was not work related. Eating, drinking, watching TV. They just found a legal reason to go after you in this case. Trust me, they will find legal explanation for issues no matter how small, that do not fit company standard.

The solution for you is having a virtual meeting in the same way you would have a normal one. Rested, seated, comfortable, well groomed, dedicated and focused. Not looking at your phone/emails, your slack/chat window or code (for software engineering). Even if all this could be work related.


  • Fine to have water/coffee/tea during prolonged meetings. Keep your throat hydrated to make you sound well and energized.
  • If your video meeting is outside of work hours (after hours support).
  • Taking a walk inside or outside the house if you are not in the meeting.
  • Taking a walk inside a house if you are on audio and have a good wireless headset with noise cancellation, so they don't hear steps and/or unrelated conversations in your household. The assumption is that you can get back to your workstation/laptop within a minute or so, if needed.

All of the above guidelines are especially important if you were just hired. Wait for a few months or years and they will allow you some slack (term depends on performance).

  • 3
    Uh sitting while having a meeting is bad for your health and you should walk as much as possible. This is terrible advice and no health regulation would allow forced sitting.
    – paul23
    May 28, 2020 at 23:29
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    @paul23: Are you having meetings for 8 hours a day? No, right? Feel free to stand up before and after, take a walk, as long as you get things done. But if you take a walk, and use phone to connect to the meeting and no-one can hear you due to wind, that's on you. May 28, 2020 at 23:46
  • @Neolisk: You can take a walk inside your home. In France, it's even government-approved advice that you hear on the radio: walk regularly, especially if on the phone or in meetings, take breaks, etc.
    – tricasse
    May 29, 2020 at 4:13
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    Where I work, a bottled water or a coffee is often offered during major meeting. While eating or playing is not professional, I don't see how that one is a problem.
    – MakorDal
    May 29, 2020 at 6:24
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    "Taking a walk inside a house ... with noise cancellation" just had to make me think of that virtual court session with the toilet flush ... May 29, 2020 at 21:24

Firstly, their verbal reasoning is a bit misguided.

They said that because everybody is working from home, my home counts as my office while I'm working.

What they should have said was:

When you are representing the company you must follow company rules.

Smoking while on the job during a visual meeting never-the-less is certainly jarring for the other guests. It's like you don't respect that they follow the rules.

Since you're working from home you wouldn't start dropping loads of F-bombs during a meeting would you? You wouldn't hang lewd posters behind you on the wall for everyone to see would you? You wouldn't take your shirt off because the room was too warm would you?

Receiving a citation for this gray area of working from home does seem a bit extreme and unwarranted but "it's their circus so these are their rules." You probably don't have the funds to fight this legally but I do think you should request a one-on-one session with an HR rep. Genuinely express that you are sorry for the way you represented the company and in no way were you trying to break the rules on purpose.

  • 1
    "When you are representing the company you must follow company rules." and "it's their circus so these are their rules." <-- this. May 29, 2020 at 16:22

Your employer is in a position to forbid or require you doing one thing or another (within reasonable limits - like to wear an uniform, not to use tobacco, alcohol or drugs, not to swear, to speak only some specified language, etc) in office hours, no matter where exactly you are (you may be on a field trip, and the place may be an actual field).

In my country (Bulgaria) an employer is even required (by law) to ban smoking at the workplace and to enforce the ban. Both the employee and the employer will be fined for a violation (well, in a rare occurence when an inspector appears surprisingly).

I think this perfectly extends to the "home office".

  • 1
    So who is responsible if I'm working from home and someone else in my home is smoking? Me or my employer? Both? May 28, 2020 at 21:01
  • @DavidSchwartz: If you have a group of drunk individuals in the background who are playing blackjack and constantly swearing, you are responsible for not finding reasonable accommodation for yourself to have a video call. No-one would mind a smoker in another room. May 28, 2020 at 23:06
  • @DavidSchwartz If the team goes on a field trip to an actual field and there's somebody else there already who's smoking, who's responsible? I don't live in Bulgaria, so I don't know the actual answer, but I suspect that the company is ultimately only responsible for the behaviour of their own employees.
    – Steve-O
    May 29, 2020 at 13:14
  • @DavidSchwartz in the netherlands it would be the employer: they have to provide a healthy work environment so if it's impossible to get the healthy environment at home they need to provide another place. If you then still prefer working at home it's your call though. Now with corona it's obviously muddied a bit since it's the government that enforces working from home, so the company cannot fulfill due to outside influences.
    – paul23
    May 29, 2020 at 14:36
  • @Steve-O actually company is responsible in The Netherlands, within reasonable limits. So if work requires field trips and company can make rules that also others not smoke they are forced to do that. If it's outside the ability of the company they're not. It's not that hard.
    – paul23
    May 29, 2020 at 14:39

Probably not. It depends on the state.

"However, 29 states and the District of Columbia do prohibit discrimination based on legal activities outside the workplace, which includes smoking tobacco."

Taken from https://www.workplacefairness.org/smoking-rights-workplace

  • 1
    Being on a company call during working hours does not qualify as "outside the workplace".
    – nvoigt
    May 31, 2020 at 12:03
  • @nvoigt Erm .. according to which specific law?
    – Frank
    May 31, 2020 at 20:00
  • For the most part, basic English grammar and vocabulary. But if you want something more akin to an official definition, how about this "The OHSA defines a workplace as “any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in or near which a worker works.” So... if a worker works at their desk at home, then by definition that is their workplace and smoking there is not "outside" of their workplace. You could argue that once the worker stops, it stops being their workplace and returns to being their living room, but that is obviously not the case here.
    – nvoigt
    May 31, 2020 at 20:07
  • @nvoigt Oddly , the only explicit definition of workplace I can find pertains to Canada and if stipulates that workplace can only be a physical property controlled by the employer. US stuff is very vague. I would suggest we put the question to law stack exchange. Me personally, I would not assume that home office could be a workplace in this context, especially that the employee is forced into home office, and is not a home office remote worker.
    – Frank
    May 31, 2020 at 20:30
  • I will go with the common English language definition of workplace. It includes home office. If you want to challenge that or think there is a different meaning in the legal world, go ahead and try. Since we are now arguing about basic English language use, I don't think there is a point where we could find some common ground, so I will stop this back and forth. Use your votes where you think they are necessary.
    – nvoigt
    Jun 1, 2020 at 5:58

In the US, it would be completely, totally normal and legally acceptable that a company might have a policy:

"You may not smoke while on video calls."

However. It sounds like they have never told you this policy and indeed they probably do not have such a policy. Your email response should be:

"Hello. Immediately completely remove the reprimand from my record. Reply with written confirmation that this has been done. Secondly, please provide me with full documentation showing the company policy which prohibits smoking on video calls. In fact, I believe such policy does not exist? Thirdly, if it does exist, please provide me with full documentation on when this policy was enacted, by who, and most specifically how I was notified about it. Again immediately remove the reprimand from my record - and confirm that this has been done - until points 2 and 3 are addressed.

(Of course, again, if they do have such a policy on file - and it was communicated to you specifically or generally - they're in the right.)

  • 8
    Yikes, this is just a letter of resignation with unnecessary steps. DV not from me, btw
    – MonkeyZeus
    May 29, 2020 at 15:13
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    I'm sure that there is an employee handbook which can reference how all of this is tied together. Ignorance does not absolve one of responsibility.
    – MonkeyZeus
    May 29, 2020 at 15:20
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    Commanding around HR only works if you have leverage. There is no leverage. This would backfire badly, probably worse than the original incident.
    – nvoigt
    May 29, 2020 at 15:28
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    Never talk like this with HR. Or with any person for that matter. Throwing demands is not a good tactics when you just received a formal warning. May 29, 2020 at 16:22
  • 2
    @Fattie This very demand-focused and aggressive style of communication that you propose here, has that been working out for you in real life?
    – Alex
    May 30, 2020 at 9:00

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