In the pre-Covid days, it was absolutely reasonable to tell an employee that someone else must be taking care of the children while you are working. Telecommuting does not mean caring for your children while building a marketing plan.
Then the schools and the daycares shut down and nannies had to return home and shelter in place there. Even with things starting to open up in some places, the schools, daycares, and summer camps have not reopened everywhere.
And here's a secret about small children: They can be kind of noisy.
In the ideal family situation, you have two parents who can seamlessly hand off the children to each other with no disruption to work.
In real life, moms still do most of the child care and single parents exist. And, unless you live in a large house, a toddler meltdown will still be heard throughout the house even if someone else is doing the actual child care.
Some bosses get frustrated and criticize, discipline, or even, as Modern Cali Mom says, fire.
Can you fire someone for having loud children?
The short answer is yes, you can fire someone who cannot maintain quiet when on calls or videoconferencing, and you can require your at-home employees to work set hours without frequent breaks. You're under no obligation to make accommodations for people's healthy children.
The longer answer is a bit more complicated and is more focused on the no side of things.
If your company has fewer than 500 people, your employees are eligible for protection under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). If they have no other child care, they can take a paid leave of absence. However, if they choose to continue working, you can still enforce rules.
If you enforce hours and quiet backgrounds for females but not for males, you'll violate sex discrimination laws. So, you can't call it cute when Joe's baby shows up on film but unprofessional when Caroline's toddler shows up. It's all or nothing.
Should you fire someone for having loud children?
Probably not. Some people may object to the concept that in this difficult situation, parents should never be punished for what their children do in the background, but not all children and not all parents are created equally.
If you have an employee who makes no effort to reduce noise, they have a job that requires frequent calls or videoconferencing, and your discussions with them have failed to bring about change, then termination can and should be an option.
But this should be a rare event after much coaching and much brainstorming. If you have fewer than 500 employees, you should also encourage your employee to take the leave until child care gets under control.
If what you hear is an occasional interruption or from time to time the employee has to step away to handle a child, then be grateful for your employee.
Remember to allow people as much flexibility as you can possibly give them. That will vary from job to job, but more flexibility is almost always possible. And it may be time to cut down on Zoom meetings. Do we really need to discuss everything video screen to video screen?
Think of the impact of your decision
Regardless of whether you feel justified in punishing an employee with loud children, it will not play well on social media. Your other employees will think you're unfair and cruel--even if they were annoyed by the obnoxious children.
Even though it sometimes feels like this corona crisis has been going on forever and will never end, it will end and kids will go back to schools and daycares and things will be quiet and professional again. Wait it out. It will be worth it.