I haven't seen any other questions to this effect.

With COVID and the normalisation of working from home, there would increase of Zoom/conference call mishaps, such as Jeffrey Toobin exposing himself on a zoom call.

Today, a Friday afternoon, I was in a meeting and screen sharing when I searched 'buy alcohol online' with all my colleagues seeing it.

To my colleagues' credit, they made good-natured jokes about it and I think are just as anxious as me to get over it.

How do I recover from such a faux pas?

  • 17
    Is there anything to recover here? It doesn't seem the impact is anything more than a few jokes. Are there any reasons for you to think there's anything more than that?
    – Laurent S.
    Dec 11, 2020 at 7:59
  • 3
    Is this just about being caught doing something non-work related during a meeting or is the issue that it was about alcohol? Why do you think your co-workers were made anxious by this? (When it comes to faux pas, this isn't even in the same universe as Toobin.)
    – BSMP
    Dec 11, 2020 at 8:12
  • 2
    mine was searching for 'download pokemon blue rom' yh it got a few laughs, never heard anything since...you'll be fine
    – PeterH
    Dec 11, 2020 at 20:19

4 Answers 4


Usually once these sort of mishaps happen, and thankfully if you realize soon enough, apologize and move on. There's not really much you can do to undo what has been done. Best way to avoid this is to move on and not talk about it extensively (unless it's a really really bad situation, like the incident in the linked article). For most of the sort-of-honest mistakes, (like cross-talk without muting, yawning/eating while video on etc.) people will let it go.

The point to note here, how to refrain from committing mistakes as those. There's no silver bullet to solve this problem. couple of best practices that can be recommended:

  • Never consider a video conference any different from a real, face-to-face meeting. Do what you'd do in a real-life meeting, don't do things you won't do if this was an actual in-person meeting.
  • Focus on the meeting, and just like any other meeting, get things done and get out. Just because it's a virtual meeting does not mean it has to extend beyond the required amount of time. Also, as virtual meetings are sort of easier to attend, don't spam the recipient list, keep it limited to people who are absolutely needed. This also helps to keep it focused.
  • Just like you raise your hand or speak up only when needed in an in-person meeting, make a habit of muting/unmuting and tuning video/screen sharing on or off as needed and as applicable. While some meeting scenario will require the video and audio to be active at all time, some others might not, and by using the features only when needed you save yourself from sudden embarrassment as well as avoid disturbance (background noise etc.) for others.

Bottom line: Reserve time for online meetings, and use that time to focus on the meeting. Do not try to multitask - most of the time it'll save your face.

P.S - My personal advice: Develop a habit of taking notes during meetings (virtual and real-life), even if it's not expected of you to do so. Kills two birds with one stone

  • Keep you focused and glued to the meeting
  • You don't need to recall / depend on others to figure out what was discussed in any meeting.

One of the unspoken rules of the workplace is to ignore things and/or to let the occasional faux pas to pass.

Ride it out, don't make a big deal of it, and don't apologize.

I say don't apologize because it's an admission that you did something that is bad enough to require an apology.

If you end up with a nickname over this, embrace it, laugh, and keep going.

We are all new to this, so much will be overlooked. Take this as part of your training on how to act in online meetings and move on.

In the future, treat online meetings as if you were in the same room as the people you are meeting with. that means

  • Be dressed professionally (and fully)
  • Eliminate all distractions
  • Do not carry on any personal business during a meeting.
  • Do not eat or drink anything during the meeting (if possible)

Err on the side of caution.

Anyone can make one mistake, and one can be overlooked. Two, probably not.

Be careful.


I wouldn't worry about it, people on Zoom calls are often doing other things while the calls are in progress.

It seems clear that your colleagues didn't mind and are moving forward without thinking bad of you.

Let this pass. In future zoom calls, keep this in mind and be careful about what browser tab you share. While at work, I use different browsers for work and personal - so I know that anything I need to share with colleagues will be in my Chrome browser.

If anyone else makes the same mistake and you notice, don't make a deal about it.

The main thing is that people stay productive and positive, which it looks like your colleagues are doing.

  • 1
    Good advice on using different browsers. It also prevents having non-work URL suggestions popping up when you start typing, exposing non-work bookmarks and so on...That said, while people are used to do other things in meetings, I think it's a bit trickier to do it when you're screen sharing.
    – Laurent S.
    Dec 11, 2020 at 10:09
  • 2
    Agreed. Unless you close your personal browser before meetings. With some browsers, you can restore your last session and quickly get those tabs back.
    – user124851
    Dec 11, 2020 at 10:38
  • Let it pass by not talking about it again, ever.
    – Neo
    Dec 11, 2020 at 14:14

The bad news

Unfortunately you can not recover from a Zoom embarrassment. (Or indeed any such embarrassment - the "zoom" aspect is irrelevant.)

Unfortunately, any other position is just blowing smoke.

No matter how kind/good natured folks appear about such issues, "the workplace" is - at heart - brutally and absolutely survival of the fittest. The team has to survive; you can't have a whole product/team die off due to one individual who is incompetent, not suitable, or not productive.

The good news

The specific example you mention ("buy alcohol online") is, simply, completely normal and OK.

Every living human drinks wine with meals and most humans drink spirits.

Note that similarly, if you had been shopping for anything at all online ("underwear!" "ladders!" "ammo!") it would be, equally, harmless and funny.

If however you'd been looking at pornography or something bizarre like racist sites - you'd be done, as per point one above.

There is no coming back in the workplace.

Memories are infinite and there's no concept of forgiveness or glossing-over. Companies are automata: bankruptcy is bankruptcy, profit is profit. That's all there is.

  • Downvote as this stance seems extreme and the tone being very cynical. If you can tone down the wording here, it would be helpful
    – Anthony
    Dec 11, 2020 at 19:02
  • cheers @Anthony ; hmm, we're dealing literally with people's livelihoods ... I'm pretty confident that each sentence is literally correct, I'm afraid to say.
    – Fattie
    Dec 11, 2020 at 19:04
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    "Every living human drinks wine with meals" not quite, I've had a number of co-workers who never drank wine, at meals or otherwise. I'm pretty sure there are religions that forbid it, and given our increasingly global work environments, many people well end up working with someone who doesn't drink wine, even if they aren't aware of that fact.
    – cdkMoose
    Dec 11, 2020 at 22:46
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    @cdkMoose So maybe that's an exaggeration, but that doesn't change that most people consider it normal. Of course, if OP were working in a country were alcohol is illegal, or had been searching for "how to cure a hangover" or something, that would have been different. But just buying alcohol seems pretty mild.
    – Llewellyn
    Dec 11, 2020 at 23:39
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    I made a pretty terrible mistake (one I'd still be mortified to describe here, even though it's over ten years ago). In some industries or countries I would have been let go, but where I worked I wasn't. So the idea that "there's no concept of forgiveness" just isn't universally true. This answer would-be much better if it was toned down or was specific about industry or location Dec 12, 2020 at 13:56

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