May 5, 2021

Crying at Work: The Beginning or The End?

This past year has presented a host of challenges.   Employees are worried about job security and health, not to mention national politics, social justice, and the global economy. At the same time, we have all had to learn how to communicate and work with one another remotely.  Is it any wonder that sometimes emotions spill over into the workplace?  In a 2018 Accountemps Survey, 4/10 workers said they have shed tears on the job. It is hard to tell if that number is accurate in 2021 since we often have no way of knowing what is really happening behind those muted video screens.  

Barbara Corcoran, a long-time Shark Tank host, famously explained in 2015, “When I see a woman who is crying, I refile her in my head in terms of potential.” She was slammed for her sexism and her view may not actually reflect the view of most modern executives. In the same survey, 44% of CFOs indicated that it is okay to cry “as long as it is not every day.” It seems that older workers are generally more accepting of emotional outbursts, with workers age 55 and older more likely to think crying does not affect one's reputation (43 percent) compared to those ages 35 to 54 (31 percent) and 18 to 34 (25 percent). 

Despite these statistics, many employees would rather not cry at work. The first step is to let yourself off the hook for a natural human response to stress and anxiety. But if you’d like to try to stop yourself from crying, experts advise:

  • Cry beforehand. If you feel like you may become emotional, find a quiet space and let it out before the meeting starts.

  • Rehearse what you want to say and rehearse reactions you might expect. 

  • Take a few long, measured breaths. Even one careful, considered breath can lower blood pressure and shift your focus.

  • Pinch yourself between your index finger and thumb. Redirecting your attention sometimes helps.

  • If all else fails and you lose control, reframe the emotion to the person who witnessed it as passion for your work. Crying is a sign of caring about an issue, and research has shown that reframing distress as passion caused perceptions to change.

A crying employee often triggers discomfort and anxiety in others present. Managers feel obligated to respond, but are not quite sure what is appropriate.  Acknowledging and responding to an employee’s emotional outburst at work in an appropriate way may help forge a deeper connection. After all, the ability to listen, empathize, and provide support are all important management skills. Deborah Grayson Riegel, a leadership consultant quoted in FastCompany magazine, advises the following when it comes to responding to a crying employee: 

  • Take stock of how the crying makes you feel. Realize that there is an impact on you. Acknowledge, then push through your own feelings to be there for the employee.

  • State “I‘m noticing you’re crying” rather than “I see you’re upset.” Give the employee the option of explaining why, rather than making assumptions.

  • Ask open-ended questions. “When you hear statements full of judgment and drama, encourage the person to share the facts,” Grayson Riegel explains. For example, “You feel like Kristin doesn’t value you. What makes you say that?”

  • Ask the employee how you can be most helpful to them. Ask if they’d like to take a break or keep going. Use neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next, demonstrating compassion and curiosity for the person without dramatizing or overplaying concern.

  • Finally, when the person calms down and you have identified the issue, it is time to “pivot toward an action plan” and brainstorm ways to improve the situation together. If the issue is not something that you can help with, be aware of additional tools that you can provide to the employee – an Employee Assistance Program or support from other employees in similar situations can sometimes be helpful. 

If you can successfully navigate to the other side of an emotional outburst and employees know that there are not negative consequences for their tears, your work relationships can be strengthened. If you need assistance sorting out the issues that arise as a result of the conversation, call HR/AA to help.  

Sources:, “Crying at Work? It’s OK – Here are Recovery Tips” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, “Managing Perceptions of Distress at Work: Reframing Emotion as Passion” Harvard Business Review, “What to Say When Someone Cries at Work”

The views and opinions expressed in the article represent the view of the author and not necessarily the official view of Clark Hill PLC. Nothing in this article constitutes professional legal advice nor is intended to be a substitute for professional legal advice.
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