Esquire Guy

The Esquire Guy on Handling Tears at Work

This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

First, the crying isn't happening because of that thing you just said. The crying is happening because the crier was ready to cry, and that thing you just said--or that thing Kevin in accounting just said or the fact that the Twix got stuck at the end of the vending-machine coil--triggered it.

You'll never know what really caused the crying. Even the crier will never fully know. Anyway, it's irrelevant. You're not going to fix anything here--not as the crying is happening. But you are going to prove something. You're going to prove that you can be empathetic and professional at the same time, which is a combination of virtues one should display at all times, not just when things are emotionally intense.

Key to this is recognizing just how emotional the workplace can be.

"I have a lot of experience in this subject. I've managed what seems like serial criers or what appears to be people crying for no reason," says Sarah Watson, chief strategy officer at ad agency BBH in New York. "It's a terrible reflection of our society, but it's true: Our jobs are very deep-seated in our self-identity, our worth, our security, our trajectory, our place in the world. It's all very much connected. Our dreams, our hopes, our fears. We bring all of ourselves and our neuroses to work, whether we like it or not."

And we bring those neuroses to work now more than ever, says Jodi J. De Luca, a Boulder, Colo.-based clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. "During the recession, I saw an incredible increase in employees that were sent by their companies [to specialists] for depression and anxiety," she says. "Economic status dictates the emotional status of the employees. It's kind of a domino effect. When you stop and think, a majority of us spend the majority of our lives at work. Work becomes a major part of our life experience, and we can't just shut off all the other things going on in our life, like children, bills, foreclosure. The human thing to do is bring it to work, whether on a subconscious or conscious level, and then sometimes work is the catalyst for that stress. The triggers are there."

When confronting a crier, part of displaying professional empathy is to understand the profoundness of the process--that the tears are one component of a complex physical response to emotion. The good news: The other parts are generally positive. A 2008 study at the University of South Florida found that criers often experience things that make them feel better as they cry, including more measured breathing and improved mood. We treat it as a symptom, but crying is often a good thing, a solution even.

What makes this so confusing for a boss is that you're forced to play contradictory roles: manager and consoler. Managers are good at fixing and encouraging and leading--all to benefit a goal. But consoling involves managing a situation without regard to any other goal besides consolation. The consolation is the goal.

Your level of consolation should match the level of crying you're witnessing. There are five levels. (For the purposes of this column, let's assume you are having a conversation with a subordinate who wasn't crying when the conversation began. And let's assume you aren't firing or even reprimanding that subordinate. Let's assume the crying comes as a surprise to you--and possibly even to them.)

Level 1: Quivering and welling up
Of the chin and the eyes, respectively. (Note: If the eyes are quivering, then the employee may be experiencing a nutritional imbalance, and you might want to suggest fewer Twix bars.)

If Level 1 is reached, continue to make your point and wrap up the conversation quickly, but not awkwardly. But let things play out, says Peter Handal, chairman and CEO of global training company Dale Carnegie Training: "Don't try to stop someone from crying. Don't interrupt. Don't say it's terrible.

Let them cry; it's cathartic. It's expressing an emotion, whatever that is: anger, sadness, concern, a whole variety of different reasons that would cause it. It's there, it's real, so don't try to suppress it."

Level 2: Tears
If something you said seems to have instigated tears, immediately stop making the point you were making. Then acknowledge the obvious, if only to mitigate embarrassment, by saying something that validates the crier's emotions--no matter how seemingly inappropriate. (This is not the time for a furrowed brow and a "What the hell is going on, Stan?!")

Acknowledge, validate and assure. Never just acknowledge. There's a huge difference between "You're clearly upset, Stan" and "You're clearly upset, Stan, though I'm not sure I understand why. Know that you can tell me, and I want to help."

The first thing to do is stop being a superior. Be a confidante. That is: Listen. That is: Don't talk, except to say, "What can I do to help?" But no touching. No hand on the shoulder. That crosses an important line.

Level 3: Sobbing
Immediate hand on the shoulder. If you're in an office, close the door. If you're in a public area of the workplace, move to a more private location. Says Watson: "A crier has done a private, intimate thing in a public place, and people feel a bit embarrassed and awkward and defensive. So give them the space to gather themselves, compose. But then give them space to hear what's at the root of it. Acknowledge the validity of their feelings; allow them to express themselves. It can go back a lot further than the conversation that we think it has come from."

The key to your reaction is to maintain the dignity of the crying person. Then express empathy. When things are more under control, relate your own experience of having an emotional outburst at work. ("It was 2004, and the vending machine was on the fritz again ...")

Level 4: Flailing and wailing
You're on your own here. Call security maybe?

Level 5: Everybody's crying
Now, if this happens often--if there are people crying in the stalls of the restrooms, say--then there's a bigger problem going on. Possibly a toxic workplace.

Says Watson: "That is a symptom of a brutal culture where people aren't heard, and there's a feeling of desperation that you're just pushing people too hard. Endemic crying has got to be symptomatic of something: poor leadership, understaffing, people don't feel they have a channel to express themselves."

But if this is a rare thing, it can be handled--with empathy, patience, kindness and discretion. All of which involve silence, which is one of the hardest things for a manager to practice, if only because it seems like the opposite of leadership. It isn't, of course. It's a marker of leadership. Whether comforting a crying employee or not, there is no professional act more powerful than to shut up and listen. Have a seat in the next stall over if you have to.


When an employee is crying at work, your main goals are: 1. discretion--don't change what you're doing, only what you're saying, and don't call any attention to the employee--and 2. understanding--with your words and actions, make them feel that it's normal to be emotional.

  • Never try to stop someone from crying.
  • No hugs. Stay professional.
  • Composure is important.
  • But there's a difference between composure and dispassion.
  • Easy on the dispassion.
  • But don't be passionate either.
  • Don't try to fix the situation. The problem can't be fixed right now--only mitigated.
  • Ask if they would like to talk later.
  • If they want to talk now, let them.
  • And listen.
  • No, really, listen.
  • ...
  • OK, you can stop listening now.
  • Seriously, say something.
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Read it and weep - Esquire Guy
Edition: October 2016

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