How Does Your Workplace Handle Crying at Work?

How Does Your Workplace Handle Crying at Work?

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek December 12, 2018
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Rhonda Moret remembers breaking down in tears during a heated debate in a meeting with her boss and co-workers. She was in her 20s and had worked for most of her career in marketing at high-profile brands in the golfing industry.

"I loved my job and approached my work with real passion," she said. "I believed the only way to propel my career to the C-suite was to be like one of the guys." 

And then she cried at work. It was her worst nightmare come to life.

"As the only female at the table I was humiliated at the manifestation of this very real human emotion," she said. "But more stunning than my tears, I was shocked by my co-workers' reactions. 

"The more I cried, the more the team outwardly ignored me. Eventually, I walked out of the conference room and shortly thereafter I permanently walked out of that organization."

If her boss had valued empathy as a necessary business skill, she said, he could have stopped the meeting and addressed why she was distraught. It would have kept her from leaving. 

While no one wants weeping at work, "managers cannot expect employees to be robots," said Brenda Della Casa, digital content director at BDC Digital Media in the United Kingdom.

"The question I would like to pose is: Why are we talking about crying more than yelling, passive aggression and bullying in the same way?" 

The Breaking Point

Often when someone tears up, it's from a culmination of frustrations, said Kim Dawson, director of employee experience at YouEarnedIt/HighGround, an employee-experience software provider in Austin, Texas.

"The issue that set them off is not the real issue; it's just the breaking point. Any time employees show emotion at work that is outside their norm, it should not be taken lightly by management or the organization at large. … The organization needs to take a step back and look at the response from all angles to understand the situation and how to move forward." 

The person may be dealing with deeply troubling personal news, such as a terminal diagnosis, a financial challenge, divorce or a death.

[SHRM members-only resources and tools: Managing Emotional Reactions]

Caitlin Fisher, content manager for Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, Ohio, recalled meeting with her boss to discuss the status of a project ahead of what was to be a vacation with her husband.

Once alone with her boss, Fisher broke into tears as she explained she had decided to initiate a divorce and would be using her vacation to find a new apartment.

"She was so unbelievably kind about it," Fisher said of her boss, "and told me to take all the time I needed."

Be aware, though, if tears are an employee's modus operandi, warned Holly Caplan, medical device sales manager and workplace writer at Holly Caplan Books in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Caplan worked with a woman who periodically teared up to get attention.

"She would call you into her office in the middle of the workday and want you to listen to her issues as she cried. ... This became toxic for us as co-workers because we did not want to be aligned with her behavior." 

The Bathroom Club

Crying in the bathroom was common at the large New York City law firm where Diane Rosen—today an attorney at Ortoli Rosenstadt in New York City and co-founder of Compass Consultants—worked years ago.

"We worked long hours and sadly, many of the partners and senior associates were quite abusive, yelling and ranting," she said. As a young lawyer, Rosen recalled feeling intimidated and worried whether she and her peers measured up.

"The bathroom club became a safe space for us to cry and complain. We would go in with our makeup bags, have a good cry, clean up and go back to work." 

Years later, when her daughter called her late at night, distraught over her harsh supervisors, Rosen advised her to have a good cry then go back to work.

"I told her that up and down Wall Street, women—and men, too—were crying in the bathroom."

Rosen thinks crying is appropriate in the face of loss, tragedy or celebration, but "maintaining equanimity is critical, and we must all learn to manage ourselves, to keep tears in check when we want to cry in anger or frustration."

Address the Real Causes

The problem with trying to contain emotions is they manifest themselves in other ways, said Taira Adair, owner of Adair Artistry in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Of all the ways to release emotions, crying shouldn't be an issue," she said. "[It's] way better than promoting passive-aggressiveness or yelling or storming out in the middle of the day."

If your sadness is rooted in a serious or chronic issue such as depression, anxiety or any type of workplace harassment, ask HR, a friend or family member for help, advised Wendy Toth, editor-in-chief of the career blog PowerSuiting. 

"It's fine to cry," Toth said, "but you don't have to do it alone." 

Jerry Colonna has seen what happens in cultures where workers are expected to leave their emotions at the door. He's founder, CEO and an executive coach at Reboot IO, a coaching company in Boulder, Colo. 

His firm was called in to help a large software company because mental health claims among employee family members had skyrocketed.

"When we laid bare the issues, it was clear that the culture had fostered a 'false positivity' in which no one was allowed to admit struggles. … The implicit ban on true feelings, feelings of sadness or pain, had not only impacted the employees but their children as well."

He remembers being a rising executive at JP Morgan 20 years ago and having to hide his tears as well as the depression that was wrecking his life.

"It simply wasn't acceptable to show any authentic vulnerability," he said. "The result was nearly deadly, as it exacerbated the pain."

Same Emotion, Different Outcome

Some think crying is a career killer.

"As a woman, tears can be seen as proof of weakness and hypersensitivity, whereas if a man screams or yells, it is seen as powerful or letting off steam," said Della Casa.

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Men cry, too, though.

Twenty-five percent of men of all ages—and 18 percent of women—have cried because of a performance review, according to a 2016 Adobe survey of 1,500 U.S. office workers.

There's a disconnect between what is acceptable in theory and what happens in reality. A 2018 Civic Science survey found 51 percent of 16,211 U.S. adults said crying at work is unacceptable, but 57 percent of 33,747 adults said they had done so.

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Negative Feedback, Job Loss

Shedding tears was a good outlet for an employee who learned her father had cancer and later as his health deteriorated from the terminal disease, said Miki Feldman-Simon. She is the founder of IamBackatWork, a Lexington, Mass., company aimed at women who are re-entering the workforce.

Getting weepy over work, though, is a different matter, she said. 

"An employee often crying over work-related matters is usually a sign of a poor fit with the role. Work itself should not make one cry."

But sometimes it does. In addition to performance reviews, layoffs can result in an emotional breakdown. That includes workers who kept their jobs.

Crying is common among layoff "survivors" who feel badly for former colleagues, experience survivor guilt and fear for their future at the company, said Susan Hosage, SHRM-SCP. She is a senior consultant and executive coach at OneSource HR Solutions in Wilkes Barre, Pa. HR professionals aren't spared either, she added, because "they have had to silently carry the burden for weeks or even months" before downsizing.

Jeffrey Naftal, SHRM-SCP, keeps a box of tissues on his desk. As HR director at Prince George's County Memorial Library System in Largo, Md., he sometimes breaks bad news or disciplines employees.

"I have never had a problem with employees crying at work. For some people, crying is the way they can release their tension or be able to cope with bad experiences."

For employees who routinely cry when receiving negative feedback, leaders should stay calm and give them a chance to compose themselves, suggest Karin Hurt and David Dye. They are trainers and authors of Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul (Amacom, 2016) and suggest the following:

  • Tell the employee you've noticed that he or she gets emotional when participating in a feedback discussion.

  • Provide an example: "In our last one-on-one you cried and now you're getting upset again."

  • Ask the employee what he or she could do to have more productive discussions. 

Think before acting when faced with a tearful employee or co-worker, advised Michael Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps.

"Professionals spend many hours at work so many people are bound to shed tears at some point," he said. "A siege of emotions can be work related, such as receiving bad personal news or making a big mistake, but how you move past the situation shows your professionalism.

"For both employees and managers, it's important to practice emotional intelligence. Try not to overreact to a colleague who is crying, as it may be a way that person deals with pressure." 

In a world where personal and work lives are so intertwined, people should not be self-conscious about reacting to distress, said Natalie Leigh. She is owner and CEO of Natalie Ihde in Glendale Heights, Ill., a company that creates resources for working mothers. 

"We spend a minimum of 40 hours per week with people at work, and they become a part of our extended family. If we can't be ourselves from time to time with these people, then is it really a good environment to work in?" 

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