A Manager’s Guide to Crying at Work

Back in 1968,
Ed Muskie, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, may have lost
the election when he allegedly
broke down in tears in front of reporters
while defending attacks made on
his wife.
Fast forward
to 2012:
President Obama cried at a meeting
with his campaign staff

the day after he won the election.
Speaker of
the house John
Boehner cried on 60 minutes
, and is a notorious crier.
Reactions to
our political leaders, sports heroes, and other role models crying are mixed. Some
say it’s embarrassing and a sign of emotional instability or weakness. Others
say it’s
a good thing
, as it shows passion, sensitivity, and authenticity, all
important characteristics for today’s leader. And still others
accuse some criers of using “crocodile tears” as a way to manipulate
or as
a form of emotional blackmail.

No matter
where you stand on the issue of crying, as a manager, if you have not already,
you’ll be faced with a crying employee. The old rule of thumb was “there’s no
place for emotions in the workplace (or baseball), it’s all about the facts, just the facts”.
Managers, when faced with a crying employee, would either run away in fear or
do something stupid or insensitive, or both.

So what’s a
manager to do when faced with a crying employee? While there are no clear,
consensus management rules to fall back to, there are a few things that may be
helpful to know:
1. It’s not about character, it’s
about science.
According to Dr. William Frey,
the director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St.
Paul, Minn., and author of the 1985 book Crying: The Mystery of Tears,
adult women cry four times as often as men. But it has less to do with weakness
or sensitivity, and more to do with biology.
Men’s and women’s tear ducts are anatomically different.
Women also have higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which promotes
lactation and has been associated with an increased tendency to cry. Prolactin
levels also rise when a woman is menstruating, pregnant, or has recently given
birth. Similarly, testosterone—of which men have more—has been associated with
a decreased tendency to tear up. Different people have different prolactin and
testosterone levels, so some people are more apt to cry than others.

So, as managers, we need to let go of stereotypes and
perceptions about crying and recognize it for what it is – a chemical

2. Keep a box of tissue on your desk at all times.

While this may seem obvious to some, I’ve sometimes
walked around offices and noticed that more than half of the manager’s desks
lack this management essential. Who knows, maybe they’re hiding them in a desk
drawer, only to be pulled out when needed?

In either case, when faced with tears, gently pushing a
tissue box is a way to break the tension, show some sensitivity, and provide a
practical solution to running noses and mascara.
3. Offer a brief “time out” to allow the employee to
regain their composure.

Although crying at work may be more common, acceptable,
and biological, it’s still often embarrassing and uncomfortable for the
employee. Asking “are you OK?”, or pointing it out, may just make it worse. The
employee will most likely appreciate the opportunity to regroup and resume the
discussion in an hour or so. I even read
about a manager
that took a break from her own office to use the restroom,
giving the employee a chance to compose herself. When she returned, they were
able to continue the discussion without a word said about the crying.

4. Avoid the “fish bowl”.
If you know the discussion will be sensitive and the
employee is prone to crying, have the discussion in a private place. If you
don’t have an office or if your office has glass windows, then book a
conference room. It’s embarrassing enough having to cry in front of your
manager, and even more so having all of your co-workers watching it.

5. Don’t let crying be an excuse for avoiding the issue
or lowering your standard.

Yes, a “time-out” is a good idea, but it should not be a
permanent time-out. Set a follow-up time and get pick up right where you left

6. Be aware that sudden and frequent crying may be a
symptom of bigger problems, either at work or home.
I’d certainly be concerned if lots of my employees were crying at work – that just might be a
sign that there’s a problem with the work environment, don’t you think? Also,
stuff happens in our lives, and it’s impossible to separate our personal lives
from our work lives. While it’s not part of your job description to solve your
employee’s personal problems, being understanding and supportive is the right
thing to do as a leader.

7. Provide coaching if the crying is

Workplace experts will disagree on this, but as normal
and acceptable as crying may be in today’s workplace, there are STILL
situations where it could have an impact on your performance or be career
limiting. Crying as a reaction to feedback, losing your composure in a
boardroom, or an inability to deal with conflict are all situations that can’t
be overlooked. Your employee may need your help in pointing this out, as well coming
up with more acceptable ways to cope with their emotions.
How about you? Where do you stand on the issue of crying at work? What
advice would you offer managers?