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

Marisa Keegan Communication, Culture, Employee Coaching, Employee Relations, Leadership, Marisa Keegan

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.

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.