How To: Make it Stop! Employees Crying at Work – The Kiss of Corporate Awkwardness

no crying at work human resources

My friend Leslie called me last week and before I even said hello she blurted out, “I cried in front of a (male) Senior Leader today. Like, really cried”.

So awkward.

Whenever I see or hear about a high powered woman crying at work I hate it for her. As a female trying to ‘lean in’, trying to make my mark in the corporate world, trying to climb the corporate ladder full of men who don’t cry it makes me wish women could turn their tear ducts off.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve cried at work. My boss told me he had cancer and I cried. We found out that thirty two people on our own Virginia Tech campus were killed – plenty of tears to go around. If climbing the corporate ladder dictates that crying in those situations is wrong, then I’ll happily live on a lower rung. It’s the tears that send women to the privacy of the bathroom stall or lead to the awkward work meetings that need an on/off switch.

As I dug more into the crying situation with Leslie I found out that her manager is leaving her company. Instead of replacing him in the satellite office they are going to have her report into the corporate office. The man at the corporate office that she looks up to, interacts with often, sees as a good mentor, and does a job that she wants to do someday will not, it turns out, be her boss. Instead she’s reporting to someone she has never meshed with, who doesn’t respect her, has acted questionably towards her, and has made attempts to hinder Leslie’s growth in the past. Leslie cried when she found out she would be reporting into Sabotaging Sally. Suddenly, the career growth that she had always loved about her company felt like it was being cut off.

I asked Leslie how the Senior Leader reacted when she cried and she responded, “He told me that it was okay and that he could tell I was crying because I was really passionate about my job. It was still awkward”.

Yup. Still awkward.

If you’re a leader and one of your employees starts crying it’s up to you to smooth the situation over – even though this might not make sense since you aren’t actually the one crying. Welcome to leadership.

First, think about why the employee is crying:

If it’s because a bad life event just happened the right response is something along the lines of, “I’m really sorry this happened. I’m here to support you in whatever way works best for you. Why don’t you go and take some time to work through this. Let me know how I can help”. Maybe a hug if you’re into that kind of thing.

If it’s because they are frustrated over a work event remember, the fact that they are crying means they care. Employees who don’t care about their team, their client, or your company don’t cry. Instead, they just don’t give a s#*t. Would you rather a crying employee or an employee who doesn’t give a s#*t? All of a sudden crying doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

The secret to smoothing over an awkward crying situation is to remember that crying happens when employees are frustrated and people become frustrated when they sense a lack of control. Give the employee control over the situation, the frustration decreases, and the tears go away.

To help an employee gain control:

  • Don’t let the dialogue in your head that is saying, ‘WARNING: Crying employee. Shut down and shut up. Find the nearest table to climb under” take over.
  • Say, “You are obviously upset. I can tell you’re passionate about this topic. Let’s talk about it. What is bothering you the most?”
  • Follow up with questions like, “If you could change the situation what would you change? What is the desired outcome for you? Why are those better outcomes?”
  • Show them you’re listening and are invested in helping them come up with a solution by saying things like, “The reason we chose this path was…” or “Let me think about this topic a little more and get back to you”.
  • Find a way to give them ownership over a solution: “Even though you are going to report into Sabotaging Sally, why don’t we reach out to the other leader and set up a mentoring relationship with him so that we can help you transition into his department when the time is right?”

With a little finesse and some practice with crying employees you can quickly and effectively help your employees stop crying.

If you need more suggestions I’m happy to coach you through the tears.

FOT Background Check

Marisa Keegan
Marisa is a Culture Coach for small and quickly growing organizations trying to establish the infrastructure required to create a company full of passionate, motivated, and engaged employees. She has held culture and engagement roles for two nationally recognized great places to work, founded the research and networking group Culture Fanatics, and is an industry recognized blogger. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and twin boys and is looking forward to the day she can bike across the country to raise money for MS research. @marisakeegan.

12 Comments

  1. Renee says:

    You have no idea how timely this posting was today. Thank you for clarifying that crying is not a bad thing. Your suggestions for how to “work through it” are fabulous.

    Reply
  2. TM says:

    I think this depends on the culture of the person/office and the reason. For example, in the extreme situation of VT shootings sure, no one expects there will be no tears. However when it comes to frustration, I simply don’t buy that (and yes, I’m a woman).

    I personally think women crying at work, except in cases of the extreme (i.e., life threatening disease, a mass shooting, a family member/ friend/close coworker passing, or experiencing a major life event – sickness, birth, etc.), is a manipulation ploy. I’ve seen this a lot at times in my career and have even heard the stereotypes of white American women using crying to “get their way”.

    For example, there was a woman that worked with us that was most certainly by all accounts a “mean girl”. She was in her 40s, very successful, but certainly not anyone you want to work for/with. Problem was, when you called her on her attempts to bully a coworker/subordinate, sabotage a team, etc., she quickly defaulted into tears. No matter how delicate it was put, if you confronted her it became a big production. It was so common that eventually, no one bought her crying fits.

    I think if we are looking at the good in others sure, people cry for real valid reasons (someone is being truly genuine and not making a ploy for power). The suggestions presented are great for those valid reasons. However, there are all sorts of people in the workplace. If a Manager is not careful, giving power to the crier can result in a habit where this person constantly needs to be consoled…EVERY time they get overwhelmed.

    On the whole I’ve seen this much more in Western office cultures than in other office cultures. The thing is, more and more people are finding that many women (and yes, now some men) are using crying as a power tool rather than to express true feelings.

    Reply
    • Marisa says:

      TM,

      Thanks for reading and for submitting a reply. While I think you bring up an interesting point that some people might use crying at work as a manipulation tool I don’t think that’s the case most the time. The woman that you mentioned, the mean girl, needed to be talked to by a leader who was willing to work through the tears by setting up a really strong Performance Improvement Plan. There is no reason that bad behavior or a bad attitude should be accepted or overlooked at work just because someone can’t handle being given feedback about behavior changes they have to make.

      I truly believe that if we analyzed all of the situations in which people cried at work we’d find that most of them happen when the employee is frustrated or has lost their sense of control over a situation they are passionate about.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      Reply
  3. Shannon says:

    I have very sensitive tear ducts and actually refer to myself as a Sympathy Crier. Whenever I’m speaking with someone and they start to cry, I start tearing up. This has definitely been proven over and over again, between working in HR where people cry to you all the time, as well as during my stint in a 24/7 animal hospital emergency room.

    When it has been me that’s cried at work, I can say that very few things in my professional life have made me angrier at myself. I always feel like I’ve put women in the workplace back decades when it happens (although when other women cry to me at work, I certainly don’t think less of them for it). And I run and hide and try to avoid anyone else seeing it. And, for me anyway, it is absolutely, without-a-doubt, 110% NOT a manipulation tactic.

    Reply
    • Marisa says:

      Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for commenting on this issue. I know for sure you aren’t alone with the sensitive tear ducts and I agree that most people who cry at work aren’t doing it to be manipulative. In fact, that thought hadn’t crossed my mind because in all the times I’ve seen people cry I’ve never felt a single one to have been due to manipulation.

      Thanks for reading!

      Marisa

      Reply
  4. Tommy says:

    I have seen all sorts of people (men, women, junior, senior, introverted, extroverted etc.) get a little bit choked up at times of extreme stress or when they feel passionately about something. I can say from a male perspective most of us have no what to do when faced with a co-worker or even worse direct report who is crying properly. I think you make a good point Marisa though that there are some people who tend to relish in the discomfort it brings whilst I think others are genuinely embarrassed and try not to effect other with their situation. Each situation is different I guess but it is certainly like swearing – needs to not be overdone or else it loses its effect.

    Reply
  5. Meredith says:

    Ugh. I LOATHE crying at work.

    However, I am not immune to it. I’ve broken down before under extreme stress (typically after putting in a lot of hours due to the stressful situation). So I “get” it. And I do care about this job, hence the frustration and crying.

    But I love the questions to ask. Those will help. Great article!

    Reply
  6. Blanche Cordero says:

    I am just getting so fed up with these off the wall issues that were just handled in the past. Is that HR today is so fragmented that no one is a true generalist? Is it that HR today really doesn’t have the experience to deal with real life issues. There is so much important work to be done and people are talking about – should you wear jeans on an interview, or is HR a rep of management or an advocate for the employee and now is it ok to cry? If HR just realized that all they had to do was provide a safe haven for the angry employees, for those who just need to vent, for those who are crying because of their boss, bad news from home, etc Maybe the people in HR just need to be empathetic and try to understand, but allow the person to vent, yell, scream or cry. I used very simple techniques and we changed the culture.

    No employee would every think of going to the HR people just to sit and talk, let alone show any type of emotion that would get back to their boss. Are you seeing the point here? You have to be able to build trusting collaborative relationships with the employees at all levels; so when you say what is said in HR, stays in HR, you mean it and the employees know they can trust you.

    Also walking around and listening to what is happening in people’s lives allows you to take a current “Temperature” of the mood/morale of the employees. This is mot rocket science, but it does require emotional intelligence, passion for what you do, and I believe, a desire to make a difference. Understanding the employees is just as important as understanding the business.

    Although I have been unemployed for over 2 years and not hired because of all the stereotypes, false notions about becoming stale, not current. Incapable of learning new things, not wanting to learn new things, etc, etc, etc. This is all BC and call it what it is-DISCRIMINATION. Let’s get off that because it takes a lot more than graduating from a college and 2 years of experience in an industry to become a HR Manager. It does take seasoning, experience working with all the different kind of people you encounter each day, a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes and a desire to incorporate the business and people side of goal attainment and success. Like someone said above, with all the fancy smancy titles today, it is still about finding the right people, no matter where they come from, what industry, whether employed or unemployed, regardless of past job titles since you would be comparing apples and kiwis.

    So what if someone cries. Why does a woman or a man have to make excuses about eye conditions? What happening to just being yourself and just providing the company with a day’s work for a salary in exchange. You read about people afraid to take vacations, or people being terminated because they have been sick too long, or being advised they don’t have to come back after a maternity or paternity leave. I believe it is simply greed. As we hear of more and more lawsuits against companies that are trying to get away with not doing the right thing, like Russell Stover or Wad-Mart, so they could make a little more profit.

    Today I heard about a 30 year old with extensive experience in her field who have not been able to find a job because she has been unemployed for over 6 months. What happened to thinking outside the box, shifting paradigms, diversity, innovation, change, transformation, etc. We legislate risk in banking yet companies see to be paralyzed by risk avoidance. Yet they continue to have turnover not seen in a long time. It is just disgusting that people are valued one day and discarded the next.

    Reply
  7. Kari says:

    I cried today. Thankfully, I have an amazing boss who really wants to understand the weepiness. I just wish I could understand what I tear up, so I could learn to control it. I do believe there is a lot to be said for passion and control. I also think it has to do with frustration (lack of direction/conflicting direction), ambiguous expectations that you feel can never be met, feeling like you’re disappointing someone you respect, relief that problems are being acknowledged, stupidity and weakness for the first tears, and (I’m going to say it) hormones. Add in the fact that many of us are working because our incomes are crucial to our family’s support and the pressure that adds, I guess I do understand the tears. There’s no attempt at manipulation, and I would wager that the vast majority of us “weepers” would do anything to learn how to control it. What are some techniques that others have found helpful?

    Reply
  8. Nan says:

    The crew compartment is about halfway back again and can house
    two mini figures. Almost everyone can probably recall playing with them as a child,
    putting together figures and taking them apart without any
    regard for what they were doing. At 14+ these models are more
    in the league of adult collectors who enjoy the attention to detail and design and the intricate build.

    Reply
  9. Dan says:

    Im not sure about crying. Jesus wept. I think the workplace doesnt permit us to expose our hearts. HR is the heart of a company and yet it has no heart. Its a bureaucratic tick box engine that is not held accountable for eremaking peoples luves a misery. I think people cry and people sing. Handel wept when he wrote the Messia

    Reply

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