When you spend one-third of your life at work, tears can make an unwelcome appearance no matter how much you want to avoid crying.
Bad news at home, a negative review, punishing deadlines or a nasty coworker can send your emotions out of control. Crying at work can damage your career, but it's possible to recover if you proceed carefully, experts say.
Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, has collected hundreds of “crying stories” from working professionals who have witnessed weeping coworkers. As a “crier” herself, she was interested in how others perceived tears at work. The news wasn’t good.
The Risks of Crying at Work
Elsbach’s research shows it’s acceptable to express frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness at work, but crying tends to get excessively punished because it demands so much attention, she says.
“It creates this impression of need, that the person needs help. It’s almost like a baby crying — in that we’re programmed as human beings to react to crying in an empathetic way,” Elsbach says. “While that’s perfectly acceptable in many circumstances, at work it’s seen as an intrusion: ‘At work, I shouldn’t be asked to provide emotional support.’”
Criers were often labeled as weak, unprofessional, unqualified or even manipulative. They were treated with kid gloves by colleagues and bosses afraid to upset them or worried about their toughness, Elsbach says. One recent study found tearful people are seen as warmer, but less competent.
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But it can be hard to stop the tears from flowing.
“My feeling was that this boss seemed to think there was a risk I might cry again and the less he engaged with me, the less risk there was of that happening.”
Lyda Hawes, an operations manager who lives in Seattle, still remembers the time she cried in front of her boss early in her career and how the incident impacted their relationship afterwards.
“The biggest change I noticed was less direct eye contact and his avoiding me in general,” Hawes, 48, says. “My feeling at that time was that this boss seemed to think there was a risk I might cry again and the less he engaged with me, the less risk there was of that happening.”
That boss left the company soon after, but Hawes believes it would have been harder for her to advance professionally had he stayed. She decided being vulnerable or expressing emotions at work could be risky and resolved to avoid any more workplace tears.
It’s all about the context, says Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert and author of “The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes.” If you receive difficult news at work and you well up, that’s showing you’re human. Otherwise, crying is generally not acceptable in the office, she notes.
How to Bounce Back From Tears
If you feel the waterworks start to flow, here’s what you can do to minimize the damage:
- Take a moment: If you feel tears coming on, excuse yourself and head to a private space until you can collect yourself. There may be nothing you can do to stop crying, but the goal is to avoid disrupting others’ work, Elsbach says.
- Prepare: Think about your upcoming review or meeting and rehearse what you will say ahead of time, Pachter advises. Come up with a brief explanation in case you end up in tears. You can say: “I know I’m crying — it means I’m really vested in this topic. Let’s continue; I’ll have it under control in a minute” and then move on, she says.
- Bring it up ahead of time: If you know you’re likely to cry during your performance evaluation, prepare your boss before things get emotional, Elsbach advises. You can say: “I just want to let you know that I tend to have emotional reactions and I cry easily. I don’t want you to think that has anything to do with you, but if it does happen, just know that I do want to hear the feedback. You may have to give me a few minutes.”
- Get plenty of rest: People who don’t get enough sleep react with more emotion to stressful situations, researchers have found. Learn to manage your stress to avoid having an emotional eruption at work, Pachter advises.
- Realize when crying is perceived as OK: The most acceptable reasons for crying at work are personal issues, Elsbach found. That includes dealing with a death in the family, divorce, major illness or being passed over for a promotion. Colleagues were most sympathetic if it happened once and briefly. Crying during a negative review in a private office with your boss was also “allowable” if you kept listening and made attempts to stop the tears, she says. These scenarios fall into the category of: “It was a tough day, a tough circumstance and anyone would have behaved the same way.”
- Consider when it’s seen as most inappropriate: Crying because of daily work stress, like having a tight deadline, was found mostly unacceptable by the observers in Elsbach’s research. The worst-perceived scenario was weeping during a meeting. That was found never to be acceptable, she says. Crying under these circumstances was perceived as: “There’s something wrong with you.”
- Decide if you want to apologize: Pachter didn’t recommend it, but Elsbach was surprised at how often people who witnessed workplace tears expected an apology because they felt the crying was inconsiderate — “sort of like ‘How dare you make me feel uncomfortable?’” she says. You can handle the situation by saying, “I’m really sorry I disrupted work or made you feel uncomfortable.”
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