crying at work / smart bosses

A reader writes:

I had a boss many years ago who had a really fantastic managing trick, and I want to share it with you and your readers. I know from conversation with colleagues that she’s done the same thing with at least one other person; we talked about it because we were all so impressed. It has to do with addressing the reality that your supervisees are human beings and may sometimes get emotional even though everyone knows that You’re Not Supposed to Cry at Work.

I was under a lot of stress for reasons unrelated to my job at one point (applying to grad school and family issues, both of which my boss knew about). At one point during our biweekly check-in meeting, I got a tiny bit misty-eyed. What did my boss do? NOT ask about it — “Are you okay?” or “What’s going on?” are the surest ways to get someone who’s trying to maintain control to lose it. Instead, she blew her nose (insuring I’d know where the tissues were) and announced that she had to pee and would I mind waiting for her in her office. Her bathroom trick gave me the thirty seconds I needed to compose myself, acknowledged that people sometimes get emotional without making a big deal of it or making me look unprofessional, and made her look amazing. What more could you want?

Nicely done.

I used to keep a box of tissues front and center in my office, because you would be surprised by how many people cry at work.

But I think everyone is mortified by it regardless, so I like your boss’s way of handling it.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn*

    I love this trick. I will have to remember it. I haven’t had anyone cry in my presence yet, but I can see how it could happen. Even though everyone knows you shouldn’t cry at work, sometimes it just happens. It’s definitely happened to me a couple times. One day I had the copier guy fixing the copier that wasn’t compatible with the network, which we didn’t know at the time, and he was in my office about every five minutes; someone’s computer crashed; I had the branch calling me about a customer issue; and then my boss tipped me over the edge when he said he needed a pair of speakers for his computer. It was so chaotic I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom. I just couldn’t take it and had to go in my office, shut the door, and have a mini-meltdown. I had my co-worker go get my lunch. I just ate my lunch, surfed the net a little, and then I was fine.

    1. Jamie*

      Crying as stress release – more than anything I would love to find a way to do with so people couldn’t tell I had been crying.

      Crying is so cathartic for me when under pressure or super angry, and I’ve succumbed a couple of times at work. Those instances top my List O’ Big Career Regrets.

      If I could change one thing about myself it would be to replace crying with yelling, swearing, storming off, throwing something …anything more socially acceptable in the workplace than closing my office door and coming out with red eyes.

      Kudos to the OP’s boss for the sense and sensitivity of this method. I will definitely file this one away in case I need it.

      1. Kat*

        Jamie, I’m the same about sometimes *needing* to cry, despite knowing I’m not meant to.

        Unfortunately, I don’t have an office of my own and there is only one female toilet (so I can’t hog it to have a cry!). Thankfully, I can get away with ‘going on a site inspection’ and sitting in my car somewhere!

        The only thing is, my entire face and eyes swell up and go red. It doesn’t entirely disappear for a few hours, but most people wouldn’t be unkind enough to mention it.

        I absolutely love this boss’s method of dealing with it!

          1. Jamie*

            This article is genius. I bookmarked it, emailed it to myself at home, and printed a copy to keep in my purse.


  2. Jennifer O*

    What a great approach! I will definitely keep this in mind if / when I’m in a similar situation. Thanks for sharing.

    I have no doubt that this woman was a fantastic manager in other ways as well.

  3. Bridgette*

    I really like how she didn’t draw attention to it. The letter doesn’t mention if the meeting originated with others present or if it was just the boss and the OP, but it makes it ten times more awesome if others were present.

    1. A Bug!*

      I’m assuming it was one-on-one, because it wouldn’t have the same effect otherwise.

      The idea is that the boss is leaving the employee alone in the office to collect herself. If the boss bails on a multiple-person meeting, the employee’s still left in a room with everyone else in attendance.

      The boss would have to basically say “Well, I’m going for a pee. Sam, Harpreet, Jessica, I’m going to need your help. Susan, you can stay behind, there’s not enough room in the stall. We’ll be right back.”

        1. A Bug!*

          Oh, my intent was that Susan was the one who needed to collect herself, but that could also work!

  4. Kelly*

    It’s true, asking “are you okay??” is a surefire to make someone cry when they are trying not to. I had a boss do a great job of this – I came in for a pre-observation meeting, he took one look at me and went “I think we could both use some coffee – can you wait a minute while I get us some?” and stepped out. And then he came back with coffee from the admin office which, honestly, a hot drink is a very nerve-calming thing.

  5. ChristineH*

    I cry very easily and, while I understand not wanting to draw attention to me, there’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind hearing a quick but concerned, “Are you okay?” But then again, I don’t know the entire context of the OP’s email (was it in front of others in a conference room? Did the OP and the boss speak privately in the office after the “bathroom break”?). Also, I know that what I appreciate may not be as well-received by most others, as in the OP’s case.

    1. JT*

      If you want to be supportive, “Are you OK?” is not a good question, because if they’re not they either have to lie or open up, which might be uncomfortable. Better things to say is something like “Let me know if you need a moment” or “Let me know if you need anything.”

      I’ll pile on and say the OP’s boss is a class act.

      1. Al*

        It depends on how “let me know if you need a moment” is delivered. One of my former supervisors would be very snarky and roll her eyes as she said it to numerous co-workers. She was just rude all around but that just confirmed how mean spirited she was.

  6. Anonymous*

    This was such a kind gesture to do. I know how embarrassing it can be to tear up in front of someone. I wish I was a tough person. I think to cry at work is even worst. Some people can be very supportive if you do, but you feel like you are somehow showing a weakness. I think the way this supervisor handled it would help you not feel totally embarrassed. This is a good post.

  7. Manager in Waiting*

    Wouldn’t this come off a bit like she was just trying to escape the room and the situation? Because to be honest, this would be my first instinct, even though I’m a girl and apparently supposed to be more sensitive.
    “Oh crap, she’s going to cry! Make an excuse and RUN!”

    1. EngineerGirl*

      Nope. Because she stated that she was coming back in a few minutes. That’s a lot different than the run and hide move.

      1. Manager in Waiting*

        Well she has to come back, of course. I just mean hiding until it’s over (minutes later). I’m not saying it’s a bad move, or that I won’t endeavor to use it when this comes up, I’m just wondering if some more sensitive people won’t read it as abandonment when they’re clearly in need/distraught. I suppose if they did that would be their own problem. The manager’s intent would have to be loud and clear.

        1. Cary*

          The op did say she was a little misty eyed not crying her eyes out. That said a lot of people need time to collect themselves before being able to deal with things calmly.

        2. moe*

          I understand what you’re saying, but I think criers (and I am one) are pretty painfully aware of how inappropriate it is to lose it at work, and any “tending to” of the emotional state just magnifies it.

          If the boss is generally an emotionally intelligent sort, I think most would see it as the kindness it is.

          1. Liz in a library*

            I completely agree with this. I’m usually able to pull it together fairly quickly if I’m alone, and it’s far less embarrassing than actually bursting into tears in front of my boss.

  8. Danni*

    I totally get that that would work for some people, but I would be sort of offended if my boss made an escape, even just for a moment. I personally like someone else’s example of “I think we could both use some coffee”. It gives the employee time to collect herself in private, but it shows more of a caring side from the boss. I think going to get a cup of coffee/tea is nicer than making an excuse, and more professional than hugging the employee/discussing/etc.

  9. Spreadsheet Monkey*

    I will admit that I have done my share of crying at work, and have been mortified by it, although it’s gotten much less frequent as I’ve gotten older and have gotten better coping mechanisms in place.

    However, my favorite “crying at work” story didn’t embarrass me at all. I got a phone call that my grandmother died. She was very old and not in good health, so it wasn’t a surprise. I knew I was going to have to go out of town for the funeral, so I figured I’d get some more work done before I left. I was sitting at my desk, working, with tears running down my face. My manager (a big, macho type) came out of his office, saw me, got an extremely terrified look on his face, and ran back into his office. Next thing I knew, my supervisor was standing at my desk, asking me to come into his office. Our manager couldn’t even look at me. Even in the middle of the sorrow, the fact that he was unable to cope with a “crying woman” amused the heck out of me.

  10. Monica*

    Well this is appropriately timed – I did ( unfortunately) let tears of frustration drop yesterday. The person addressing me pauses, pulls a tissue from a box in her drawer (nothing can be on her desk – no cupholder, folder, anything) and blows HER OWN NOSE. Doesn’t even offer me a tissue. Just watches me suffer, mortified.

  11. KayDay*

    This is great! For a while the pill I was on made me cry really easily. I didn’t even need be that upset, but I would still start tearing up a bit. It was so embarrassing, and the last thing I wanted was for someone to ask me what was wrong! Giving me a minute to collect myself would have been so much better.

  12. Scott M*

    Looking at the comments above, am I the only male here who will admit to tearing up? :)

    I have, on occasion, found myself frustrated enough to near my voice crack and feel my eyes tear up at work. Not sure that I needed the other person to use the above tactic, but it couldn’t hurt.

  13. Jungle Jane*

    Why did she need to address it at all? Only a female boss would feel the need. I can’t think of a single male boss I have had that would feel he needed to talk to me because he thought he saw me misty eyed..

    1. R*

      I can – most may have been terrible at it, and my favorite was always vaguely horrified by the prospect but never would have ignored a distraught employee, male or female.

      If it seemed like it was a personal thing, certainly they would have left it alone and all of us managers would have.

      But if it was work-related distress signaled by someone coming in, talking about something work-related and then choking up, misting over or just outright bursting into tears, then none of us would have just pretended that wasn’t happening.

      *Speaking from somewhat frequent experience….

  14. JLH*

    This OP’s manager’s approach is great, and I hope people will keep it in mind, because it’s a nice way of given someone space to compose themselves, while asking about what’s going on tends to make it worse.

    People cry. And it’s okay. People even cry at work, and that’s okay too. I hate the notion of we “shouldn’t” cry at work. We spend a good deal of our waking lives there. And unfortunately as much as some of us do to separate work and our lives outside of that, our lives don’t just stop because we’re at work. Nor do our emotions.

  15. Gallerina*

    She sounds lovely – I had a former boss who yelled at me for crying and for “not looking happy” when doing the filing in a back office. My mother had just been rushed into hospital and the situation was pretty touch and go…but apparently that’s not an excuse for crying, looking upset, or leaving the office on time.

    It was my first job after leaving university, so I just assumed it was normal!

  16. Jess*

    “There’s no crying in baseball”

    That said. . . I’m really actually pleased I’m not the only one giving myself the occassional time out in the bathroom for a tiny cry. For me it’s just when frustration overwelms me– a minute to quietly freak the heck out and I’m fine and can deal with whatever is going on, but things build up on the best of us.

    I loved how the manager handled this– I had a boss once who would cry herself ALL THE TIME. anytime we came to her with problems or issues, she would take it personally and burst into tears. It was really awkward, especially because at one point she pulled me aside (my grandma was sick and had just slipped into a coma. . . I had just booked my flights to go home to be there when she died, but had about a week of stress and worry to get through at the office first) to tell me that no matter what was happening, she didn’t want my ‘personal problems’ to enter the office. ARGH.

  17. Elle*

    So helpful! I have one team member who I supervise who tears up pretty easily and I’ve been looking for a way to give her a minute without awkwardly staring at her or sending her back out to the cubes to regroup later.

  18. a nonny miss*

    This hit home for me because I lost it last week after my desk after IT dressed me down and actually called me an idiot for not saving a document to a company wide shared drive. A drive I don’t have access to.

  19. L.A.*

    There’s only been one occasion at work where I’ve just lost it in the middle of a bunch of meetings. I spent an entire day basically getting told that I was stupid/should know better by people who I was trying to help in the sales process (as per my job description) and then I got a phone call where a woman at a high powered partner company dressed me down in the rudest way possible insinuating that I had stolen information and lied about it publicly on our website – even though I had spoken with her before to get password protected access to the news that they had announced earlier that day. The tears came and I just could. not. stop. them. I freaked the heck out of EVERYONE else that I dealt with that day, but I didn’t have the luxury of going outside to have a good cry before dealing with the situation. I instead walked directly to the people involved, told them to not pay attention to the tears and spoke as calmly as I could to get an answer as to what had happened. The women I spoke with got it and didn’t ask questions, the men looked at me like I had 7 heads. I honestly don’t even know if there was a better way to handle that situation. :/

    1. Sweet and Petite*

      I work in customer service as well. Every once in a while I have to deal with people who like to test people. Just focus on the situation itself and deal with it. Don’t focus on the angry expressions and personal remarks. It’s helped me stay calm and I’m an emotional person.

  20. Anonymous*

    I’ve never cried at work, but in graduate school I did once nearly cry during a meeting with a professor. I was having trouble with some of the material, and we had met to talk about it. I was so frustrated and so unused to not being able to understand something, that I was struggling to hold it together.

    There’s no way this professor didn’t notice, but he didn’t make a fuss out of it, and I was immensely grateful. He just paused for a moment and didn’t look at me. I guess he didn’t want to seem all, “Are you done crying YET?” He waited, and I took some deep breaths, and then we continued our conversation (and he made some really useful suggestions about an upcoming paper I was concerned about).

    It was perfect. I was getting myself worked up and talking about it or acknowledging it would have only made me more upset – and then embarrassed. What I really needed was to take some time and calm down, and that’s what he let me do.

  21. Emme*

    I cried at work for the first time today. I found out my grandmother had passed. I hadn’t seen her in a few years and had planned on visiting her next summer. I got a text message from an aunt saying she had passed. I came into my bosses office crying and could barely talk. My boss just says in the rudest way “I can’t understand what you’re saying”. I finally explained and decided to leave for the day. From the moment I came into her office crying to the moment I left she showed no concern at all. I didn’t expect her to hug me but at least show some concern/ she made sure to tell me that she wasn’t paying me for the time I spent crying in the bathroom.

    1. Sweet and Petite*

      Some people have no compassion for others. Ever bawled in public while in a high school? I have. All I got were weird stares. The only people who comforted me were my friends.

  22. Anonymous*

    As a guy boss, I have had to deal with this a number of times. There are ways to make it easier for the person involved, but could I ask the cryers to remember that they are oputting their boss in a difficult position to when they decide to “release” and let the tears flow if it is a regular work issue? It really is not appropriate to be crying at work unless it is a personal issue which you just found out about. Crying because the copy machine does not network etc is not great to be honest.

  23. Anonymous*

    Most often for me crying is an outcome of extreme anger. I have cried at work, and hated it, but was simply so angry I couldn’t get any words out. I caution anyone not to assume that if your staff is crying it’s because they have personal issues… it might be “personnel” issues

  24. jesicka309*

    Ugh I cried yesterday in front of my HR rep. I wish I had read this post before then… I was finding out that I had been unsuccessful for an internal transfer that I had been counting on to get me out of a hostile situation in my office. She was giving me great feedback on my interview style, and I could completely see why they had gone a different direction. She then mentioned that they had been concerned about how I would fit into the team…and I started blubbing. I guess that piece of feedback hit close to home, not to mention that the news of my application had been leaked into my department, so I started panicking that someone had told them I didn’t fit into my current department. My HR rep is amazing, and was completely sympathetic. I was so embarrassed I cried, but this situation at work has had that effect on me several times. On the upside, the people involved have been hauled over the coals for breaching confidentiality, so at least they sorted that out.

  25. Sweet and Petite*

    I haven’t cried at work, because of my past experiences with crying in public. People stare at me, which makes everything so awkward. On top of that, my eyes and cheeks get really red. Also, it takes forever for me to stop crying and people can’t understand a word I’m saying. Yeah, I have been training myself not to cry in the work place, whether I’m in trouble, dealing with a jerk, or have things going on in my personal life. I just focus on the situation at hand and deal with it(It helps keep me calm.). No use bawling my eyes out in front of the boss, clients, and coworkers. It’s counterproductive and exhausting. If I need to cry, I’ll wait until after work, when I’m inside my vehicle and have my sunglasses on. That is when I let everything out.

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