Crying at Work -- Is It Ever Okay?

Because this is an advice article, I am not just going to tell you not to do it. If you could stop yourself then you wouldn't be reading this. I will tell you that prevention is the key.
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The topic of tears in the workplace is so touchy. We all know a crier and have had to deal with them from time to time. I have had staff members, peers, and bosses cry big fat tears in front of me at work. Sometimes they were crying out of frustration with job related stuff; sometimes it was about a personal thing. Often it was me who made them cry by telling them something they didn't want to hear.

So why is it that people cry at work? Firstly, it is mostly women. The only guys who cry at work are the ones who just got fired after years of three martini lunches and then they get a boss like me. Those guys cry, but other than them, it is usually the ladies.

There are certain workplaces where no crying happens ever for any reason. I can't imagine that the person running the bulldozer for a road crew has an emotional reaction to the scuff in his bucket shovel. Police officers probably don't cry much in front of each other. The female officers in particular don't dare to cry. Besides, they don't have to cry; they have guns. Angry women with guns need shed no tears. Mechanics, pilots, hockey players -- none of these guys work in emotionally sensitive environments.

It might surprise you to realize that likely everybody who sees you cry at work checks you off on their list as "crier." That means you are one ugly cry from a worse label: "unstable," which is a career killer.

Every time I have sat through tears across a desk from me, the same thing happens. The person snotting and bawling crumples a Kleenex to their nose and says, "I can't believe I am crying at work!"

Really? Because it probably isn't the first time.

The best thing you can do of course is not cry at work. Most managers, particularly males, will either be mortified and uncomfortable, or they will assume you are being manipulative. The ones with Mommy issues will get turned on by it... but that's for another article.

Because this is an advice article, I am not just going to tell you not to do it. If you could stop yourself then you wouldn't be reading this. I will tell you that prevention is the key. If you have a really good idea of what can trigger tears then you can prepare yourself a bit better. For instance: if you can't handle feedback, and you are going into a performance review this might be a time to do some preparation and give yourself a pep talk.

When faced with the actual moment, here are some things you might want to try:

  • Ask for a moment to compose yourself. Just say something like, "I am having a reaction to what we are talking about and I would like to step out for a moment. I will be right back." Then go out breathe, refocus and find your balance quick, and smile. It will help. (Or you will look like a crazy person which will help if you have to pull a mental illness departure later.)
  • Breathe deeply and quietly, in through your nose out through your mouth. It will calm you quickly enough and cause you to focus on something other than your visceral reaction.
  • Pinch yourself hard, or bite on your tongue -- that one always works. Try not to draw blood or you are back in crazy land.
  • Change the focus of the conversation slightly so your brain doesn't lazer lock on the alarm bells that cause you to cry in the first place.

I have always managed to avoid workplace crying because my emotional range is pretty limited. The stop before tears is always anger, so I just get mad. Some people cry when they get angry which totally undoes the scary/angry reaction you sometimes need to have.

Another thing to note: everybody reads what they want to see on your face. If you are doing everything you can to control tears, make it look like you are keeping composure. People tend to back off a respectful distance if they think a blood clot is about to blow out of your temple.

If you are crying because of your personal life stuff, just go home for the day. Nobody needs to see that. Then, cry in your car like everybody else does.

If you think it is totally okay to cry at work, then I am going to ask you if it has served you well. Likely you aren't a CEO of a major multinational.

To be fair, there are people I have worked with who I care about deeply, and I have seen them cry in the privacy of a conversation, and it was okay. Somebody who came back to work too soon after a miscarriage, or has a sick kid/spouse gets to cry anytime she wants to in my book. Everybody else needs to pull up their big girl panties and save the tears for home.

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