ask the readers: how should I follow up with a teary employee?

Here’s the second of our “ask the readers” questions today. This reader writes:

I am a male in a mostly female organization. However, I find myself in a middle management position with about 10 reports. Today when I was making rounds to check in on people, one of my reports appeared sad. I asked if everything was alright and at that point I could see she was on the verge of tears. I knew if I asked anything more she would have started to cry, embarrassing her in front of five other coworkers who sit in her office space. I assumed the issue was not work-related and I excused myself.

I have a good rapport with her, but I do not know if I should ask her now if she would like to talk about it in my office or let her handle it? Maybe it’s as easy as finding out if it’s work or home related before pressing the conversation forward.

Readers, what say you?

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader

    I would leave it alone unless it’s affecting her work…if she wanted to share with her manager, she would.

    1. Jamie

      I agree – leave her alone. When we had to put our beloved dog to sleep I was desperately trying to hold it together at work and some kind souls spread the word that I didn’t want to talk about it…because just asking me how I was doing would bring the sting to my eyes.

      If it’s affecting her work or upsetting the office that’s different – but if she is just bummed and dealing with something but isn’t bothering anyone else then just give her some space.

      1. myswtghst

        Agreed. I was in a similar position after my grandmother died, and I had to come back in to work for a few days while helping prepare for the funeral. It was easier on me to separate work and private life in that situation, and to avoid the subject at work until I could even think about it without tearing up. I know my boss was trying to be sympathetic, but it just made it difficult for me to focus.

    2. Legal Eagle

      Agreed. Personally, I would hate it if I manager wanted to force a conversation with me about my feelings.

      I am interested in hearing other viewpoints though.

  2. Christine

    As someone who has needed to make a few quick exits to the bathroom to keep from breaking down at my desk lately, I want to thank you for at least noticing. A little compassion in the workplace goes a long way during a rough time in life. I think that if you could send her a quick email letting her know that you noticed she was upset, and to feel free to contact you if there’s anything she needs.

    1. Jen in RO

      I think this is the best idea. I would prefer to let my manager know *something* rather than letting him guess. Even if that something was that I am having personal problems which I’d rather not discuss.

    2. Mary S

      I think this is a great suggestion as well. It lets the employee know she can come to you if she needs to.

      Mary

  3. some1

    I would leave it. When you asked her if she was ok, she would have told you what was wrong if she wanted to. Also, if it was “work-related” you would either know about it (i.e. she’s getting canned) or she’d tell you if you needed to know (one of her co-workers made her cry). I’m guessing it’s personal and I wouldn’t bring it up unless it’s affecting other people.

    1. Chinook

      Asking in the moment may not be enough if the tears were triggered by a coworkers actions. If that coworker were there, I know I would do everything in my power to say it is nothing rather than give her ammo (if it was a “mean girls” situation, that is).

    2. tcookson

      Sometimes (most of the time?) people who are upset cannot respond in the moment. Even if she would like an opportunity to let her manager know what is going on with her, she might not be able (or want to) speak on the spot when it’s likely that she might not be able to contain her emotions.

      I think sending a quick note is the best idea. It lets her respond, with the amount of information she prefers to provide, in an emotionally-collected way.

  4. Kyle

    I’d send her a quick note. “When I stopped by I noticed you seemed upset, please let me know if there is anything you’d like to discuss.”

      1. VictoriaHR

        +1 .. email gives her time to compose an answer. Asking her in person or pulling her into a conference room would put her on the spot and possibly make it worse.

        If it were me, I’d appreciate a note of follow up. When my dad died, I really struggled at work for a while and no one seemed to notice or care. A friendly word would have been nice.

        1. girlreading

          Or it’s possible people did notice and care, but didn’t want to invade your privacy or upset you. I had a co-worker whose sister died and I felt horrible for her as she was about my age, the death was sudden and she found out at work so everyone saw her breakdown. She was out for a little while and when she came back I was afraid to bring it up to see how she was feeling because I guess I thought if I made her think about it, it would bring all the pain back (or at least more to the surface) and I didn’t want her to feel awful all day at work. I also felt like there were truly no words I could say that would make her feel any better. I can only imagine I’d be inconsolable if I lost a sibling and I feel like saying “I’m sorry for your loss” seems so cliche and insincere, but what else do you say?

          1. Jamie

            FWIW “I’m sorry for your loss” isn’t cliche and can’t be insincere if you are truly sorry for their loss.

            I lost both my parents and had a late miscarriage within 4 months and that was a crash course in what horrible things well meaning people will say when they try to get creative. “I am sorry for your loss” and sometimes “I am sorry for your loss, please let me know if there is anything I can do” when appropriate are compassionate and boundary respecting statements.

            Obviously if you’re super close to someone (best friend, close family) you should know them well enough to know what you can and can’t say…usually…but for everyone else err on the side of custom – imo.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              Absolutely. I’d also add that people often worry that bringing it up will remind the person of the loss, so they say nothing — but believe me, that person is already thinking about it. There’s no danger of reminding them; there’s only danger of them feeling no one will acknowledge what they’re going through.

              1. Liz T

                Agreed. When my dad’s mother died, my mom was really upset that no one at work (where people talked about such things) took her loss seriously. They didn’t understand that even though they weren’t biologically related, my mom and her mother-in-law were REALLY close. A friend of mine (not even knowing about the work stuff) left her a beautiful note of support and condolence, and my mom really appreciated it.

    1. Rob Bird

      I agree and I have done this before. Just a simple “If you want to talk about it, let me know” comment can go a long ways.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        I would keep it at just this. “I noticed you seemed upset” etc. would feel a little invasive/judgmental to me (but that may be b/c of things in my particular workplace). “If you want to talk…” leaves it open for her to take you up on, or to let it go if that’s what she’d prefer.

    2. jmkenrick

      I agree with this. I think it’s important to appear compassionate and if there is something wrong, you want to give her the room to approach you. At the same time, you want to make it clear that there is no pressure.

      You’re both adults, so there’s no sense in pretending you didn’t see the obvious.

  5. Jamie

    One more thing, I found it interesting that you mentioned she seemed “sad.” Just speaking for myself, I don’t know that any work related issue has ever made me sad. Angry, frustrated, furious, livid, pissed, resentful, overwhelmed, over-stressed, fed-up…any of which could trigger a cathartic crying jag on the way home….but not sad.

    Sad seems personal.

    1. jmkenrick

      As someone with family members who work in hospitals, I feel compelled to include the caveat that there are circumstances in which sad is an understandable workplace feeling. Not ideal, of course, but understandable.

      1. Jamie

        Sure – some workplaces will inherently trigger personal emotions more than others – my mom was a nurse and I knew even as a kid there was no way I could work where I was personally affected like that…but point taken that in some cases it’s inherent for many.

    2. Long Time Admin

      We’ve had several layoffs at work, and about half our staff is gone. Every once in a while, I want to talk to So-and-so about something, and I realize they’re not here any more. It’s all I can do to not cry sometimes. (It feels like everyone I liked is gone. I console myself by remembering that they’re only gone, not dead. That’s happened, too.)

    3. jesicka309

      I know I quite often appear sad or teary at work – and sadly, it is directly related to my work. Frankly, I’m depressed. And work is causing it.

      I know if my boss noticed me getting upset I’d like a quick email offering support, because to be honest, that’s just what I need right now. Sometimes, the knowledge that you can talk to the boss if you wanted (perhaps not this time) is enough to make me feel like I’ve got a bit more control, and that someone in my workplace has noticed how miserable I am.

      Definitely send a quick email offering support, because while they might say no this time, the next time, when they’re feeling worse, it will help for them to know that you are an option for help.

      1. Jamie

        Is there some specific help you want your boss to offer? Like addressing a particular problem which is causing you to be upset?

        If so, why not ask for a meeting to bring up whatever work related issues which are bothering you? You don’t have to wait for them to notice and come to you – in fact I would think it would be better to proactively address it than wait for them to notice that you’re upset.

        1. jesicka309

          I did that about 18 months ago – in which I broke down in tears. I think I stunned my manager, and he ended up asking if he could tell a femal manager in my department, who emailed me a bunch of EAP brocuhures about depression. And I was like “gee, I still hate my job and coworkers…but thanks?”
          I guess I’m looking for a little bit of leeway while I’m struggling, and I think I’m getting that. I had a sick day yesterday due to my anxiety, and it was good that he didn’t question it at all, where usually I’d get a bit more of an interrogation. (I didn’t tell him I had anxiety, I just didn’t say what was wrong and he didn’t ask)

          1. glennis

            Jesicka, if the source of your sadness is your coworkers and your job, it really IS something you should bring to your manager – or if he is the problem, to his supervisor or HR.

            You should not have to endure a bad work situation without trying to get help from people who have the power to help.

            I wish you luck.

            1. jesicka309

              I’ve known for a while that this situation is a “learn to deal with it or get out” one. But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find another job that fits, and in the meantime I’m studying.
              So as much as telling my manager what the real issue is, I can’t very well turn around and say “the reason I’m so sad all the time is because I hate it here and my job search is taking a ridiculously long time, longer than I expected.”
              The job function isn’t going to change, though I’ve tried to convince them otherwise, and I’ve tried internal moves to no success. Sometimes my frustration gets the better of me, and when I get another rejection I get a little bit misty eyed at my desk.
              Thanks for the kind words though. :)

              1. Sunday's Child

                And the EAP can still be a resource for you; EAPs offer confidential advice and support and sometimes just an ear to listen to you talk about your frustration with your job situation. Call them.

  6. olivia

    I think letting her take the lead on handling it is best. When I’m that upset, the last thing I want is public attention.

    I have to add, I’m kind of bothered that you point out that you’re a man and most of your colleagues are women as a preface to your question. I can’t see how that’s relevant whatsoever.

    1. Just a Reader

      I think women are more likely to cry in the workplace. Sad but true.

      But you’re right that it seemed like a sexist setup to the problem.

    2. Anon

      I thought the preface suggested that he was worried he came off as an insensitive jerk and that a female manager would have been more sympathetic or something. Not that there was something wrong with the female co-worker.

      1. OP

        Sorry if the gender part seemed odd. I have seen other managers and peers lend a shoulder to cry on at work and I wondered if I was making the right decision by excusing myself before it became a good cry in front of others.

          1. Long Time Admin

            So do I.

            Most men would rather walk barefoot over hot coals than be around a woman who’s crying.

            1. iseeshiny

              I am a woman who would also prefer to walk barefoot over hot coals than be around anyone who is crying. Even if that person is me.

          2. Original Dan

            Agreed. It’s enormously important in this case.

            C’mon people, not every mention of gender is sexism. Men and women are different in many ways; refusing to acknowledge that as fact makes one sound naive or ignorant.

        1. Chinook

          And if you had seen female bosses pat someone on the shoulder or offer a hug, you may have wondered if it would have been acceptable to do the same as a male boss.

    3. Kathryn T.

      I think it is relevant, because of the different cultural expectations around visible displays of emotion between men and women. It might be easier for a woman in a largely-female environment to reach out without risking being seen as critical, for example.

      1. Jamie

        This is what I was trying to type – but you put it into words better than I could.

        Men tend to be less familiar with the impulse to cry at work so a woman could feel like it’s a bigger deal if a man asks her about it than another woman. Not in all cases – just playing the numbers.

      2. olivia

        Yes, I can understand that societal expectations might affect whether the individual cries at work in the first place, or how one handles grief publicly. I don’t think it should affect how another person attends to that individual in the workplace, though, and this was the crux of the question. That’s why it seemed out of place to me.

        1. Jen in RO

          I don’t about what should or shouldn’t happen, but as I woman I would feel way, way less awkward comforting another woman. I don’t know if it’s society or “the sisterhood” or something else, but it’s a definite for me and many others I’ve spoken to.

        2. Liz T

          Also, it might not be grief: women are more likely than men to cry due to frustrated anger. Men are less conflicted about feeling and expressing anger, because that’s considered an acceptable male emotion, but many women feel that they’re not allowed to express anger, so it comes out as tears. (I have definitely done this, and I’ve been everyone’s Tough Feminist Friend since I was five.)

          1. Jamie

            I know I’ve said this here before – but I explained this very thing to my boss during an incident where I was tearing up.

            He was trying to soothe me and explaining that the incident over which I was crying wasn’t my fault and that I shouldn’t feel bad about myself. I stopped him and told him I knew that, and I didn’t feel bad about myself at all – and that I was neither hurt nor insecure…I was furious.

            I told him I had no intention of raising my voice or throwing anything, and while I had considered quitting I wasn’t doing that either…and basically “this is me when I’m beyond angry.”

            It helped that he was in agreement that it wasn’t an overreaction – and was just glad I didn’t quit – and that I was in my office with the door shut so it’s not like there was a scene…but yeah his immediate response was to think I was hurt and to soothe me and make me feel better about myself. I felt just fine about me – it was the situation that I wasn’t okay with.

    4. BCW

      I think its a perfectly valid preface to the question. The answer could very well be different based on the gender of those involved.

  7. Nikki J.

    I think a follow-up would be a good call. Just the thought of compassion goes a long way if you express the boundaries properly. Recognizing that she may burst into tears and stepping away was a good call, especially if there is little privacy but you never know if she took that as him not caring, or brushing it off. She may need “open door” later.

    1. Job seeker

      I would not want anyone to keep on asking me questions. Most of the time you cry as a release of emotion. The emotion of sadness, hurt, overwhelmed but to me no-one wants to cry in public. I did this just the other day with my hairdresser who is also a good friend. I was talking about how someone in my extended family has hurt me so much and gets mad at me when I try to explain my point and the tears starting rolling. I finally got a hold of myself and realized I was really hurting. She was kind enough to say ” Lets just change the subject now. ” Leave this alone, she probably does not want to share whatever is the problem with you.

  8. Dallas

    As someone who, much to my dismay, cries REALLY, really easily…. Follow up via email. If she needs to talk to you, that gives her a way to approach. If it’s personal and she’s humiliated she was teary at the office…. She can compose herself in private.

    Seriously, I cry so easily and it’s the worst. I’m working on it but it’s difficult when it’s a physical reaction you can’t control. The WORST.

    1. cncx

      I have the same problem at work. I have cried three times at work in the past year and I feel like the office basket case. But it is like you said- it is a reflex that is hard to control. Some people scream and yell or get angry but no one thinks they are a freak. I just cry.

      1. Jamie

        We all really need to work together. An office with no judgement, no yelling…just a lot of tissues where a couple of tears is on par with sneezing in the social realm.

        Barring that – as soon as they come out with that tear duct surgery I’m in. :)

      2. Ash

        I personally think anyone who has a disproportionate emotional response to a situation isn’t necessarily a “freak”, but just someone I don’t want to deal with, whether they yell, get angry, cry, whatever. I think a lot of people are the same way. No one wants to have someone running around yelling just like they don’t want someone running around crying either.

        For me, unless you are being actively berated, yelled at or assaulted, or you were just told a loved one had died, there is 0 reason to cry at work, and I say this as a woman.

          1. A. Noni Mouse

            Dallas, I completely understand. I cry at the drop of a hat. Typically it’s something I can control at work, but last year I was in the midst of a rough patch when my long-term relationship ended suddenly. The next day, I was a wreck. I hid it for the first few hours, but when my supervisor commented that I seemed a bit down, I lost it. Floodgates. I tried to keep working, but it was just too much and I ended up taking a personal day and leaving early. Luckily, it was a small, all female office and everyone was very understanding (though only 2 of them knew what had happened initially).

        1. Been There

          Boy, there is a lot about your fellow human beings that you don’t understand, particularly women. I agree that if someone is “running around crying” as you put it, or making a loud, obvious display, it doesn’t create the greatest work atmosphere. However, since workers are also human beings, I can think of a lot of reasons to be moved to cry at work; crying is an uncontrollable reaction that can be brought on by a number of different emotions including anger and pent-up frustration with a person or situation. What exactly is a disproportionate response? Quiet tears, or wailing?

        2. Original Dan

          Am I the only one thinking of Donald Southerland in the last scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

    2. Anonymous

      Yes, me too. Especially to the question (or a similar one to ) “are you ok?” I do have a running joke with my boss at work – “don’t be nice to me!” – if I’m just about holding things together for some reason being nice to me will break it. Luckily he knows how to read that now!

      1. Been There

        Don’t you just love the well-meaning dope who walks past, sees your red eyes, and shouts “ARE YOU O-KAY?????” at 100 decibels within earshot of every one in the organization? Aaargh!

  9. Manager

    Making yourself available and reaching out with professional support, without prying, can be a great way to comfort an employee who is battling a personal issue at work, whether they speak further on the issue or not. Noticing a person that you manage experience being on the verge of tears shouldnt be ignored. They may be fearful of being judged if they spoke up otherwise, or worse, judged even more harshly if it interferes with work. If you dont do 1-on-1 routine meetings, a simple email “I wanted to let you know that my door is always open.”

  10. Cheryl

    I think that an email follow-up shows both humanity and concern for the employee. It is not necessary, however, and I think you should let your personal comfort level be your guide here. The best thing is react authentically – if you express concern via email and then would be awkwardly weirded out if she wants to talk about breaking up with a partner or losing a pet, don’t do it. If you send the email – you open the door. If that is not something you wouldn’t normally do, or feel comfortable doing, then don’t do it.

    I also think you should consider the culture of the organization. Having worked in human services agency for a number of years, I noticed that everyone wanted to talk about things and share their personal stories. In that setting, a follow-up email would be normal. But now I work in a much more professional setting, where people are more detatched and there is a clear division between personal and professional life. If my manager noticed I was upset and commented on it in this setting, I would be mortified that I let my personal life affect me in that way.

    So- be authentic to your own comfort level, and think of the culture of the organization. Also, keep in mind there are other ways to show care and concern without directly addressing this situation.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      This is key too — if you have reason to think that the conversation will go in a direction you’re not going to be comfortable with, factor that in to whether/how you respond.

      1. Jamie

        This is a really good point. If the OP is only comfortable dealing with work related stuff (totally reasonable) then it should be phrased so she knows she can come to him with any work problems.

        Because I do know people who will share way too much personal information at very little provocation and the OP could end up being presented with problems he’s not equipped to handle.

        There is nothing wrong, imo, with letting your boss know if you’re going through personal issues and even what they are – but it’s a rare relationship that will help you through the details of your bad divorce, or your mom’s breakdown, or kid in serious trouble.

  11. Darcie

    Leave it alone. It would be way out of line to follow up unless it was something vague like checking in about how work is going. That will give her the chance to talk to you if it was work related, and doesn’t address her being emotional.

    I’d be embarrassed if I were in her position. The last thing I’d want is a male boss asking me about my personal life and personal issues. But it’s really awesome you had the emotional intelligence to notice and leave her be.

    1. jmkenrick

      I’m confused as to how following up would be way out of line. On the contrary, I think it would be the polite thing to do.

      Pushing for personal info, is rude, of course, but I think he should send her a quick note just indicating that if there is something she’d like to speak about, that’s fine.

      1. Jamie

        I think this is a huge MMV issue for people. Some people would really appreciate the acknowledgement and view it as a compassionate response.

        Others, and I’m in this camp, would much prefer to avoid confirmation that it was noticed. Like if you trip in a skirt and you fervently pray that when you fell nothing was exposed.

        If it’s not a work issue and it won’t be held against you some people would feel the compassionate thing to do is not call attention to an embarrassing moment.

        1. jmkenrick

          No, I agree that it’s a judgement call. I just think that “way out of line” is an overstatement.

      2. Lynn

        Maybe it depends what your workplace is like. I would DIE of embarrassment (or at least want to) if I was upset about a fight I had with my husband or something, and then my manager asked me about it. How to respond? Plus I would worry that it was kind of a veiled “unless someone actually died, keep your personal drama out of the office” message.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that he ask about her personal life — just saying that he noticed she seemed upset and that his door is open if she wants to talk. That leaves her the option of “thank you, I’m fine” or anything else vague.

    1. Elizabeth

      Gender blindness is a good goal, but I think it ignores the reality that the genders really are socialized differently, especially around things like crying. I would feel mortified if I cried in front of my boss, but more so if my boss were male because I would worry more that by crying I was contributing to the stereotype that women are irrational and can’t control their emotions. (Look up “stereotype threat” if you’re not familiar with it.)

      I’m not saying that the OP should react wildly differently based on the genders of the people involved, nor that their genders are more important factors than other things about their personalities – but gender does play a role in human interactions.

      1. Jamie

        I have never heard of stereotype threat – I looked it up and it’s a very interesting concept. Thanks for posting that.

        And ITA with how I would personally respond as well. My female boss has cried at work out of frustration/anger so my response to her asking me if I were okay would be totally different because I know for a fact nothing judgy would be going on. My male boss is great – but I’ve never seen him cry and it would be much more awkward conversation if I were trying to hold back tears.

        1. fposte

          A very good former boss cried–well, got unmistakably teary, anyway–in a meeting with higher ups, almost all male, and I was really impressed with the way she was utterly unapologetic and yet didn’t derail the proceedings. I suspect it deeply influenced the matter-of-fact treatment of it in the meeting.

    2. AG

      Why? Like it or not, men and women are biologically different and are socialized differently. Being “genderblind” is naive. Two groups of people can be different and still equal.

      1. Just a Caveman

        Probably better to tear up at work then to punch a hole in a wall or go out and drink 6 shots to let off steam.

      1. A Bug!

        It’s good to raise your children to be gender-blind. But it’s either naive or disingenuous to pretend that adult men and adult women require exactly the same treatment and considerations in the modern workplace.

        (“I’m gender-blind” can easily equate to “I treat women the same way I treat men, without consideration to how that might end up benefiting one gender over the other.”)

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Moreover, it can actually be harmful to try to be gender-blind or race-blind — it can lead to practices that aren’t as inclusive as they would be if people’s genuine cultural differences were taken into account in a thoughtful way.

        1. Liz T

          Agreed with both of the above. The OP is clearly treating this employee as an individual, but including information that might affect how his actions are interpreted.

    1. A teacher

      I’m on my phone so linking it is hard, but this was debated a few months ago and it got a hit heated from what I recall. It was an interesting discussion but I think people basically needed to agree to disagree over there perspectives.

  12. KayDay

    I think you did the right thing–there is a good chance that it’s personal (as Jamie said above, sad (usually) = personal whereas frustrated = work).

    The rest of what you should do is just be a good boss (and also a good person) in general–grant reasonable requests for time off and flexibility, make sure you are treating your team fairly etc, etc, etc. If you want to reach out to her more, a simple “how are things going?” gives the employee the option either tell you or keep it private.

  13. RB

    I have been through this many times over the years with direct reports. I’ll know if it’s work related, so usually situations like that are personal.

    Keep a respectful distance, but don’t ignore it. I like the idea of an email. You might have outside resources or experience that will help or you can guide her to your EAP if you have one.

  14. OP

    Thanks everyone for your response. I did find out it was work related later that day… At the time of writing this question I did not think it was work related because we had reviews two weeks earlier. However, we had just come from a department meeting and not getting the promotion she had expected was weighing heavily on her.

    1. Just a Reader

      That qualifies as sad. Why did she think she was getting a promotion? That definitely warrants a follow-up conversation.

    2. Anonicorn

      Did she find out she wasn’t getting promoted in her review, or in the department meeting?

      Because it does seem pretty crappy to suddenly learn a thing like that in a meeting with your entire department, who potentially all knew you were up for promotion and didn’t get it.

      1. A Bug!

        Maybe she was advised of it a while ago, but at the meeting they announced publicly the person who did get the promotion. Maybe it re-opened the wound, or maybe it rubbed salt in it if the chosen candidate was someone she felt was less qualified. Or maybe it just didn’t really sink in until then.

        Either way, OP, maybe after she’s had a chance to work through it emotionally you can meet with her to discuss her goals and make a plan to meet more effectively so she’ll make a more attractive candidate next time.

        1. OP

          She found out during her review that she was not getting it. Actually no one was promoted to the position. The dept. meeting 2 weeks later was just a reminder that she is still a peer after 14 years in the same job.

          1. A Bug!

            14 years without a promotion? I’d cry, too. (Sounds like she needs a link to the AAM article on taking charge of your career.)

    3. Anonymous

      I want to say that you are so nice and thoughtful for thinking about the best way to approach it. At my second “real” post college job I had a real meany of a boss. My boyfriend and I broke up and I went to work the next day with a broken heart. I guess I looked bummed because at a department meeting my boss said, “what’s wrong with YOU, did your dog die or something?” and I burst into tears in the middle of the meeting. AWESOME! Giving my two weeks notice at that job was very satisfying.

  15. Rose

    I would suggest bringing it up to her, because it could be work-related. I would suggest, perhaps in your next one on one, just asking her if everything is ok and is there anything else she would like to talk about or anything she needs your help with. It is best to address these matters face-to-face as e-mail could come accross as impresonal. Of course if you really feel uncomfortable addressing this in person, an e-mail letting her know that you are here if she wants to talk, would be better than nothing at all. If you ignore the situation, it may appear that you don’t care. Also, from an HR standpoint, we need to make sure that there isnt a harassment situation.

    1. -X-

      ” It is best to address these matters face-to-face as e-mail could come accross as impresonal.”

      I disagree that face-to-face is best for a start. It’s best to address it in email so she won’t feel put upon to answer quickly. Give her the option of talking about it, or not, by writing to her. It’s not just about the OP’s discomfort, but about the other persons – don’t put her on the spot.

      1. Liz T

        Totally agree! I would much rather be given space to react privately.

        Of course, this also depends on the relationship.

  16. Chinook

    As an uncontrollable cried (who luckily doesn’t have it happen often), I would drop an informal email the the report stating that I was worried about them and asking if there is anything that I needed to know and, if there wasn’t, I will just pretend it didn’t happen. Then I would do nothing unless the report tells me something I needed to act on.

    I am a big believer in talking to someone but, in this case, email allows the report to pretend it didn’t happen while at the same time give them a space to let me know of anything that might affect work (whether it be office politics or needing time off).

  17. Meg

    Meh. On one hand, I’d agree with a short email that you noticed, door is open.

    On the other, you’ve already asked her if she’s okay. That’s it. Done. Over. I know I tend to get teary-eyed when frustrated or angry or any other range of mixed emotions. I also know is that I don’t want people to keep bringing it up. If I’ve already been asked if I’m okay and I shrug it off, an email isn’t going to help things. If anything, it’d make me even more upset (just like how my partners tend to constantly ask me if I’m fine and it irritates me).

    If you hadn’t already asked her in person, the email would be a good idea. Otherwise, leave it alone.

  18. ECH

    I like the idea of the followup e-mail and leaving the door open to talk if she wants.

    I also believe the gender issue is very significant, because there can be instances in which a female employee appreciates the kindness of a male supervisor and begins to confide in him, starting on a slippery slope if they are not careful.

  19. fposte

    We have a more interventionist bent here–part of the academic thing–so I’d definitely do a low-key email followup. Something like “I know sometimes there are just those days, but if there’s anything I could help with, please let me know.” And then I’d be fine with getting no response, and I wouldn’t give them sympathetic looks or anything later. I think it’d be worse to fail to reach out to somebody in distress than to momentarily discomfit somebody who was privately weepy and would just as soon forget it.

  20. TL

    I’m late, but wanted to add my $.02, as someone who became “misty-eyed” at work a couple of times. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend ignoring it entirely, just in case it was work-related. In the same situation, I think I’d appreciate a low-key e-mail saying something like: “I noticed you looked upset; I don’t want to intrude if it’s personal, but if it’s not and you have any concerns you want to discuss, I’m available.” Acknowledging that you noticed they were upset, and want to be a good manager and address any problems, but also making it clear that you’re not expecting them to start talking about their personal life.

    And kudos to the OP for withdrawing discreetly and not pressing the issue with other people around. There’s nothing worse than trying to maintain one’s composure in public, and then being noticed by someone who loudly asks “Are you okay?!?” Insta-tears.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I really like this wording — it wards off a discussion of personal issues that the OP may not want to invite, but it makes it clear that his door is open for work-related stuff that might be bothering her.

    2. Meg

      Maybe it’s just me, but if my manager thought I was crying/teary-eyed over work-related stuff, I’d be so worried that he would think I can’t handle the work. I mean, that’s not to say I haven’t gotten frustrated and teary-eyed at work before (like learning this proprietary software and programming language – I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND IT YET AND THAT FRUSTRATES THE HELL OUT OF ME!!) but if my manager was like, “Oh, I see you’re upset. My door is open if it’s work-related,” and I went in there saying, “I’m upset because I don’t understand,” I’d feel like my manager would think I’m incompetent. Just the notion that I’d be upset over something about work (and hadn’t already brought it up before it got to that point of crying) makes me uneasy. I’d rather have my manager assume it was personal, and leave me be.

      But like I said, that’s just me, I guess.

  21. ashley

    The fact that you noticed and cared is enough, and like the idea of simple email. There could be any matter of personal items to leave alone. I just went through a miscarriage and went back and tried to hide my tears at my desk after every time I had to pretend things were normal at work. Most certainly didn’t want to discuss.

    1. Meg

      My first month on birth control, I was really emotional for no reason, and would get teary-eyed over someone disagreeing with me, or telling me I was doing something wrong, when normally I have the thickest skin for that stuff (I was an assistant manager at Blue & Khaki Big Box Retail — you kinda have to to deal with those customers). Definitely something I didn’t want to discuss, and had to fight back tears myself until I adjusted.

  22. Erika

    I’m a crier and honestly, on the couple occasions I lost it (or nearly) at work, it’s been easier when people left it alone and did their best to treat me normally.

    I hate that I’m a crier, but it’s just something that happens with me – it’s a natural bodily function that tends to happen when I am really stressed out, and it embarrasses and annoys me, especially when it happens when I’m not sad but actually angry or frustrated. The best reaction I’ve ever gotten was to have people ignore it as best they could.

    1. pidgeonpenelope

      As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a crier too. It’s the worst but I agree, let it alone and act as this crap coming out of my eyes is not tears. The minute someone acknowledges it, the tears start coming out more. Ugh.

  23. heyyoume

    I think the response also depends on your location – regardless if it is employment related or not in New Zealand the employer is considered to have a responsibility to support an employee with anything that might impact their ability to deliver in their role. Here an email or quick chat offering support and – if there was something serious going on – reminding the employee about the EAP services and opportunity for counseling (generally provided by most mid to large size NZ employers) would be considered appropriate.

  24. pidgeonpenelope

    I think it’s sweet that you care but you should not open that can of worms. She needs to work it out and hopefully she does not bring her personal life to work. If she confides in you, it then brings you into the situation and it could bring drama. Let her work it out and ask you if she needs anything like a half day or some time to work from home… or a coffee.

  25. Julie K

    I used to work at a training company, and if someone called in sick, they would need to reshuffle the schedule to cover the classes. I was originally scheduled to teach something I was very familiar with, and my manager said that I was going to have to switch and teach something I barely knew. I burst into tears – I totally didn’t expect it, and neither did my manager. But she said, “there shouldn’t be any need for crying at work,” meaning that if I was THAT upset, she would do something to fix it. So she did – she asked another trainer if he would switch with me, and he did. This whole thing happened in the trainer room, in front of colleagues, but everyone was completely understanding.

  26. Anonymous

    Just FYI; but for some people you don’t have to be “sad” to cry. I cry with almost every very strong emotion: happy, sad, pissed the h*ll off (which in 10 years of work, I’ve done 2x at work), annoyed, even feeling empathy with someone going through a tough time. So this employee’s “sad” look may have been ‘my coworker is a sexist/racist/homophobic asshole’. Be thoughtful of your employee and what else is going on in the work environment.

  27. Kat

    It’s a very situational thing to me. For the most part, if I’m actively upset about something, I’m not likely to want to discuss it at all, much less with my boss.

    At the same time, having someone say “Hey, you seem upset, let me know if you need an ear.” reinforces that I am noticed, someone cares, and I have an outlet if I need it.

    For me, giving me an opening that let’s me know I can come to you if the issue is work-related, but doesn’t pressure me to give you an answer on the spot is appreciated. It’s an open door versus an interrogation.

  28. Jamie

    Not work related, but I thought of this thread last night.

    My son’s school requires all parents attend a pre-prom meeting before the kids are allowed to buy tickets. It’s about 10 minutes worth of logistics and an hour of lectures about the dangers of drinking and driving and the legal ramifications of allowing underage drinking on your watch.

    So this is my third meeting and each time I need to steal myself against the power point of the kids who were killed in drunk driving accidents. Last night it was a police officer speaking of how his own daughter was killed in 2006. The speech, the powerpoint with photos of her from babyhood to just past senior year with some country song playing…there weren’t enough tissues. And there were PLENTY of us in the bleachers scrambling for kleenex.

    I can’t help it – I put myself in the shoes of a parent who lost a child and I lose it completely.

    Anyway, what I found interesting is after the fact when hundreds of parents were trying to get to the tables to sign the cards to prove we were there (and they had exactly two stations for 800 + parents. Good planning) tons of women were trying to regain composure and talking about how sad it was and I heard 6 different dads complaining about how many people were crying and that they went to far to “ratchet up the waterworks.”

    IMO if it makes one parent have the hard talk with their kid and someone stays safe it was worth it. But it was an interesting little sociological window into the different views of public crying. There were people openly resentful about it and others who couldn’t do anything else.

    Again, I know it’s different at work, just saying I thought it was interesting.

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