Handling Tears in the Workplace

Time Magazine published an interesting article about the benefits of crying at work.  This article got our attention as one of the questions we often get asked in our Difficult Conversations programs is “how do you handle it when an employee cries?”

Research conducted by Anne Kreamer for her 2011 book called It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace found that men and women at all levels of management reported crying on the job: 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men said they’d cried at work during the previous year and that it had made no difference in terms of their success.  According to Kreamer, one reason women cry more is also due to biology (women have six times more prolactin—a hormone related to crying—than men.)

iStock Tears in the Workplace Handling Tears in the Workplace

Unfortunately in most workplaces, crying is considered verboten.  We are expected to suppress our emotions and often assume that those who appear tough and emotionally shutdown are more resilient and capable.  Last week, Julia Gillard cried when she introduced legislation to pay for the national disability insurance scheme.  Her tears were interpreted by some in the press as a “cry for help…an embarrassment” and unacceptable for a person in her position; but many thought that it was a courageous display of human emotion.

Here are some useful tips to sensitively handle genuine tears in the workplace:

  • Acknowledge the tears by saying “I can understand that our conversation is upsetting for you”.
  • Show respect to the individual.  We all have different ways of expressing positive and negative emotions and, for some of us, crying is a useful and sometimes necessary way to do this.
  • Accept crying as part of what makes us human.
  • If it happens in a public place, move to a quiet office
  • Don’t try and stop the tears.  It is likely that the individual is communicating a problem that needs to be addressed.
  • Suspend assumptions until you have listened to the person.
  • If necessary, ask the person if they’d like to reschedule the conversation until they are in a calmer frame of mind.

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