How can I get out of having to use a webcam at work?
April 14, 2020 7:59 AM   Subscribe

How can I get out of having to use a webcam at work? My work is sending me a webcam. I cry off and on all day these days and they will NOT be kind/sympathetic about it if they find out.

I've been struggling at my job for a long time and my boss and grandboss are absolutely nitpick and scrutinize every aspect of who I am. For example, I am a night owl who isn't bouncing with energy in the 8 a.m. meetings and they are forever upset about that even if I manage to stay awake by pounding caffeine. When I have been having problems or am feeling ill but came to work anyway because we were short staffed, they have no sympathy. I was told a week or two before the closure that I HAVE to be happy at all times. No joke. I could explain this forever, but let's not.

Anyway: since the office closure, I now work from home and our desktops don't have cameras, which has been GREAT for me at work. But now they are sending me a webcam. I did not ask for it, they are forcing it upon me.

However, not only do I not want to have a webcam on at work for more pleasant reasons like "nobody's nitpicking that I look tired," in quarantine I have started spontaneously and uncontrollably crying multiple times a day, including during our Zoom meetings. However, since I call in via phone, I can just hit "mute" and nobody knows. I am in high distress and Not Okay, but (a) there is literally nothing anybody can do about it if they find out, and (b) I really don't trust that this office will have any kindness or sympathy if they find out I cry during their meetings, even in the situation we're in now. "Evaluations are coming up soon!" I do not think, even under these circumstances, that I will not be penalized for crying during meetings. I am sure I will be In Trouble if I cry, but I can't always stop myself from crying throughout the day. I do not want management to know how In Distress I am. Even if they were the sorts to be kind and sympathetic about it, it's not like they can do anything about it. And in my experience, they will not be. Even now. I am OUT of emotional resources to fake being happy or even fake being not horrendously upset.

Yes, I am doing therapy, meditation, etc. Still crying. They also have the tracking number for the camera so claiming it got stolen ah...probably can't do that one.

I do not want to disclose how I am really doing or feeling. When asked, I say "I am not sick and am able to work." I would really, really, really rather not cry during Zoom or have to explain to management that I can't/won't turn on the camera because I am highly likely to cry over Zoom. However, I fear the only way to get out of enforced camera use if I HAVE a camera is to disclose that I cry a lot. I just don't know what to do here. Can anyone think of any way to get out of enforced camera usage without disclosing the really bad reason why? If you were a manager, what could someone say to you to deter you from forcing them to "show your smiling face!" without disclosing why not?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"My internet connection isn't too great and if I keep the video on, I can't see other people in the room. I'll just do voice!"
posted by saeculorum at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2020 [51 favorites]

posted by mekily at 8:13 AM on April 14, 2020

Yep, blame slow internet. You can fake this if they want proof, tether to your phone and turn off 4G so you keep cutting out.

Other ideas: you live in a studio with another person who doesn't want to be on video?
posted by corvine at 8:13 AM on April 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

"I can't get the webcam to work for some reason! I think my USB port is broken!"

These do not sound like reasonable people to have this conversation with. Play dumb, say it's not working. Internet or setup reasons are both fine excuses.
posted by brainmouse at 8:17 AM on April 14, 2020 [23 favorites]

Yes, agreed that there is clearly an unsolvable technical issue. The key is that it has to be something that can't be solved by an IT person remotely, so not an issue with software.
Perhaps the computer isn't detecting the camera, and goodness, you've been double-checking that it's plugged in right and tried all the ports.
posted by past unusual at 8:22 AM on April 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Another option, a last resort, is to turn on a super fun! I am enthusiastic to be here! Zoom virtual background and then fade back from your desk when you need to. The virtual background function is really not great, and people tend to disappear into the background if they move back from the camera. Combined with mute, this should disappear all but the most obvious of ugly-crying.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:28 AM on April 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

If there’s no way around setting up the camera, you could try really really shitty lighting that doesn’t let them make out your face. Facing the camera directly into a very bright window with all other lights off will make you super backlit and hard to see - example. And since it’s a desktop, I guess there’s no way to adjust, oh well! This might work especially well if you can get out of frame while crying - the darkness will then hide any residual signs on your face.

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now, and that your work isn’t being supportive.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:31 AM on April 14, 2020 [13 favorites]

Ugh I’m so sorry! Tell them the camera just isn’t working, so weird, sorry, don’t know why, sure, I would be happy to try another model. Just defer and defer.

Also, more importantly, can you please try to find a phone therapist? These are hard times but that level of distress isn’t something you need to manage alone, compassionate help is out there! Sending you a hug.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:40 AM on April 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

I agree about trying shitty lighting. Or, perhaps a thin film of vaseline or something on the lens (or saran wrap?) to let just enough light through to see that there IS a person there? "Golly gee whiz, it looked okay when I got it out of the box. Can you see me? My faded outline, swimming in a swirling sea? Good enough."
posted by Gray Duck at 8:44 AM on April 14, 2020 [15 favorites]

Unstable internet suggested above sounds like a good one. Liberal use of the mute function during meetings. Basically keep your mic off anytime you're not speaking. Blame it on neighbors, environmental noise, someone else is taking a call next to you, etc.

Select use and placement of lighting is another excuse. They can't dictate your physical environment such as where there is space for your workstation and where the sources of light are. Your home wasn't set up for that. Feign limited access to better lighting and keep your camera far away from your face.

You could also put some kind of thin material (pantyhose?) over the lens so that your face is visible but the image is not clear.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 8:51 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Does your computer have a limited number of USB ports or perhaps some ports are mysteriously broken? If you have to have your keyboard, mouse, a USB drive, and a printer connected, maybe there’s no working port for the camera? (My work from home laptop has 2 USB ports and I’m required to use 3 peripherals, so this is a real problem for me; but no one would be able to tell if you made it up).
posted by holyrood at 9:05 AM on April 14, 2020

I've zoomed with someone whose camera feed sometimes turns on and off into a static image of them, and I just assumed their internet or computer was being slow.

You can also keep "getting disconnected" in general whenever you feel the crying coming on, and suggest to management that participating by calling in seems to be more stable than connecting via your computer.
posted by trig at 9:05 AM on April 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

I like the lies about a slow connection, but if you MUST get on a video, do this:

Sit in front of a complicated background (bookshelf is good, area with alternating light and shadows is also good)
Take a picture of your background (without you in it) but offset a bit so it won't quite match up, set this as your virtual background image
Check the box in settings for "I have a green screen"
This will CONFUSE YOUR ZOOM very bad!!
It will then give you a new setting option right above the green screen checkbox to select your background color by clicking on a color in the image. Don't click your face (too obvious), but click something on your body--hair, shirt, all good.

This is the result. That's me, I just followed my own steps and it took approximately 120 seconds total.

Looks awful in still and even worse in video. You're basically invisible, and it's so jittery and terrible many people will just ask you to turn your video off completely.
posted by phunniemee at 10:01 AM on April 14, 2020 [92 favorites]

I was going to go into a long winded spiel here, but do what the kids above said re: your internet sucks.

I know how your feeling. Be well, keep in touch with therapist and friends.
posted by james33 at 10:04 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

No, I did not recieve that camera you sent. No sir, I don't care what your delivery tracking says. someone must have stolen it off my doorstep. (might work for a little while at least).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:08 AM on April 14, 2020

If you were a manager, what could someone say to you to deter you from forcing them to "show your smiling face!" without disclosing why not?

And just to address this, for what it's worth, I am a manager. If someone on my team didn't want to join on camera I would privately ask them if there's a way I can help them join by camera, since it's our company policy to join on camera for all calls. I would be devastated if I found out someone on my team was crying all day while trying to work, and would point them toward all our benefit resources and also give them instructions on how they can take short term leave.

So I'll give the same advice to you here. If the place you work for has an HR department, please talk to them (BEFORE your evals!!!) about options for short term leave. This is a crazy time in the world obviously but when I say as a manager (and HR person) I would be devastated to hear this, I am serious. And if you're at a company of any appreciable size there should be resources available to you.
posted by phunniemee at 10:15 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think you should start out with the shitty background ideas (especially phunnimie’s idea) and then occasionally pepper in your internet being bad.

If they care enough that you’re on camera to send you a webcam I could see them giving you a stipend to upgrade your internet. Making it just shitty enough to tolerate/show you’re trying will help keep them off your back.
posted by raccoon409 at 10:42 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you, or can you claim to, have a roommate/spouse/etc who is also on Zoom a lot so you have to conserve wifi? This is common right now.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:00 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

You’re getting good advice here. If you want to stay under the radar and handle this as quietly as possible, I’d suggest you install the webcam and join each meeting with video, and then turn off video a few minutes into each meeting, with the excuse that your connection is just too slow to handle it. (You’re getting too much delay, your video is stuttering, your audio is worse when the video is on and the audio is critical, etc.) If you can make the excuse in chat even better in terms of going unnoticed.

The tradeoff is that for that to work you probably need to be extra-present in audio, and you’d especially need to make sure you’re super responsive if you’re ever asked a question. The kind of employers who demand video presence usually do it because they believe that people will shirk if they can’t be seen. If they can’t see you, they imagine you are playing with your cat or doing your laundry. But if you are super-obviously paying attention and responsive, you might get away with being audio-only, as long as you’re briefly visible at the beginning of each meeting.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 11:03 AM on April 14, 2020 [9 favorites]
posted by bq at 11:14 AM on April 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

You’re getting good advice here. If you want to stay under the radar and handle this as quietly as possible, I’d suggest you install the webcam and join each meeting with video, and then turn off video a few minutes into each meeting, with the excuse that your connection is just too slow to handle it.

This is exactly what I would do in your situation. I'm sorry you're in this stressful period. I'd try to do two things

1. Take care of yourself and keep yourself off camera as much as possible
2. Not really indicate to them that what you are doing or asking for is anything but normal

So you can work on this as others have indicated. I'd do three things

- install the camera like usual and pop in fake-smiling and waving for a minute at the beginning of the session
- make sure you have a profile image that will show when you are off-camera (does not need to be of you but should be something that is somehow indicative of you - I have a little yawning groundhog,ymmv). Not 100% sure how to do this but I think you can set it up in your profile?
- run a ton of bandwidth-heavy apps in the background so your image is all messed up
- turn off camera with apologies, be super-present via audio

This has nothing to do with you crying a lot, just not having the resources to do what they want. It's a normal thing to have happen.
posted by jessamyn at 11:33 AM on April 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

I also would hate to be forced to do it, although am resigned it might be inevitable.

I think you triage it: first, delay, then, become accustomed to the idea of a camera, and also look for another job.

Delay, delay, and delay. " No, it has not arrived!" For three or so days. "Oh, here it is, I need to not touch it for 2 days" "am trying to install"….etc…in the meanwhile put up a photo of you, that might show some cooperation…

The real solution here would be to find another job, which is at this time might be unrealistic and unlikely. This is based on your saying:
“even if I manage to stay awake” during work meetings. I think most people have dozed off in a meeting or two in their lives, but this sounds like it might have been a pattern? Your managers would need to address this, however badly, it is their responsibility.

I would not say, “I cannot be on camera because I am crying.” This is extreme! Seek out mental health and hr support.

It sounds like you are suffering enough, you don't' need a stupid job to make you feel worse.
Hang in there,
we are all worth looking at....
posted by rhonzo at 12:12 PM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

In addition to your crappy internet connection and glitchy video, you're having terrible seasonal allergies, and have to frequently turn off your camera to sneeze messily in private. The meds aren't really working but leave your face all puffy anyway, and all the mucous makes it look like you've been sobbing all the time, hahaha!
posted by teremala at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

I legitimately cannot get an external USB webcam to work even after IT remoted into my computer. You can always use that?
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 1:18 PM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am a manager. If you said that your internet connection was too slow or sporadic to support video, I wouldn’t think twice. Everything everywhere is overtaxed. I’m sorry you are going through this.
posted by ersatzkat at 1:34 PM on April 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

Another tip I just discovered by accident; if you hit space twice in Zoom it turns your video on or off. Might be useful shortcut if you are on video and feel a cry coming on.
posted by postel's law at 3:20 PM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I kind of disagree that brushing it off with a light-hearted excuse is likely to be effective. A lot of the suggestions here feel like they either already are, or are bound to lead to, various stressful sitcom-esque situations that could end up undermining you at work anyhow.

I think there are ways to attempt to draw a clear boundary without going into any specifics. It sounds like you're catastrophizing what this interaction would look like-- which is understandable, given how much is going on! But I think before letting it snowball into anxiety, making your objection known without giving details is very much worth a try and you might get what you want. If it were me I would say something like "I really don't want to use a webcam-- for me, having to be on webcam would distract me and probably affect my work in a negative way. I'm totally happy to just join a video conference on audio-only and appreciate you being able to work with me on this. Thanks!" If they press you on it, that's somewhat out of line and I'd say yeah go with a weird excuse because they're not really entitled to a further explanation.
posted by dusty potato at 9:48 PM on April 14, 2020

Re-reading your question, I think even my advice just now might be a little premature-- it doesn't sound like anyone has told you that cameras are being "enforced", just that they're being sent. In a lot of offices (yours might not be one), it would be basically a non-issue if at the first meeting the boss said "I can't see you, anon, is everything working with your camera?" and you replied "Ah, I prefer to be audio-only thanks, but it's great to see all your faces!" So yeah, depending on your workplace culture that may or may not work. But I guess my perspective is that when I start catastrophizing, the most useful thing is to first gather information to replace/bolster my anxious assumptions. I hope it turns out well, it sounds like you're in a tough spot and I really emphathize!
posted by dusty potato at 9:57 PM on April 14, 2020

it's broken

posted by Jacqueline at 12:15 AM on April 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you were a manager, what could someone say to you to deter you from forcing them to "show your smiling face!" without disclosing why not?

I'm not sure we can answer that here. I'm a manager but telling an employee that they have to be happy all the time is so far from my idea of normal that I have no mental model for how your boss is thinking.
posted by atrazine at 7:12 AM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

You can also keep "getting disconnected" in general whenever you feel the crying coming on, and suggest to management that participating by calling in seems to be more stable than connecting via your computer.

You can "fake" this for real by turning off your modem. Plug your modem into a power bar with switch (or switched extension cord or wireless outlet) you place at your feet (you might need either a couple extension cords or a long network cable to implement). Any time you need a break just hit the switch with your foot. You can push the blame onto your network provider who can't find the problem (for real, go through the call process just don't trip the power when you are talking to the ISP). They'll send a tech or a new modem but until that happens you an excuse to not have video (or to cut out when needed). Then when that solution doesn't work they'll try the other. Around here the ISPs are backed the heck up, this might buy you weeks. Rinse and lather, this will be the intermittent problem that just won't die.
posted by Mitheral at 11:55 AM on April 15, 2020

“I have nowhere private in my home to work so I can’t use video.”
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:11 PM on April 15, 2020

Could you angle the lens so it hits the top of your forehead?
posted by Pax at 6:20 AM on April 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Make the loop a stop-motion jerky video that is mostly still images of you looking down at the keyboard, your hand reaching to adjust the camera that has slipped and is showing wall, your forehead. intersperse gray nothingness indicating lack of signal.
Or, sit in front of a bright sunny window, and set the screen brightness low so you are just a dark outline.
Or put a large sheet of green paper on the wall and use the green screen feature to show something bright and detailed. It really distracts.
The tape over the lens is a good idea, you can smear the with your thumb to make it even blurrier.
When Manager complains, mention that your home is private and you prefer not to share it.

some clever MeFite should make an app to obscure home video for privacy and general fuckery.
posted by theora55 at 12:03 PM on April 20, 2020

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