a new manager says it’s a problem that our employee cries in meetings, at her desk, and during team lunches

A reader writes:

I manage a team of eight. We have all been with this company for over 10 years and together in this department for about five. Recently our company merged with another and now my department is over twice the size. The new company hired a manager, Tim, to work with me who is completely new, not a part of either previous company.

One of my direct reports, Vanessa, is an issue between me and Tim. Vanessa is quirky. When I first started managing her, she cried a few times at any feedback. After a long conversation, she told me she is an empath and cries a lot, but just ignore it and she will be fine. This has proved to mostly be true. Vanessa cries in meetings, at her desk, and during team lunches, and we adapted.

In the first week Tim was on board, two incidents with Vanessa occurred. The first was Vanessa cried throughout a meeting explaining the merger. My team simply let her be, but it was clear Tim was distracted. A few days later, a bunch of us were in a conference room and a bird flew into the glass window, fell the the ground, and died. One of my team members stalled Vanessa in the hallway while another ran outside and moved the bird to the garbage with a shovel.

After the bird incident, Tim scheduled a meeting with me to discuss Vanessa. First he asked me if she had a specific diagnosis or any ADA accommodations, which she does not. Second, he told me that he thinks long-standing teams can be dysfunctional and not realize it because we are so used to working around it.

Then Tim told me Vanessa’s conduct is “below baseline professional.” Tim is concerned that Vanessa has come to expect emotional support at work beyond average and the 10 new people who join our department will not satisfy her, ending in disaster for all.

Tim thinks we need to have a meeting right away with Vanessa and lay out some things that she needs to change. What concerns me about this is how Tim wants to have this meeting, which is a “tough love” format and will definitely not get through to Vanessa. I suggested a much softer approach and Tim told me, “Can you see that you can’t talk to Vanessa like an adult?”

I think Vanessa is definitely an adult. I also think we should deal with personality conflicts when they come, if they come. I think there is a real benefit to accepting the misfits, the quirky, the sensitive among us.

Tim and I agreed to table it for now, but he told me that he is prepared to talk to Vanessa about professional conduct and will not hesitate to do so if the situation warrants it.

I want our new department to be successful and I want to work well with Tim. I also want Vanessa to keep being Vanessa. How do you suggest I go forward in this situation?

Well … I share Tim’s concerns.

He might be off-base about the most effective way to approach Vanessa about this; I’d say the focus shouldn’t be on “tough love” but on brainstorming practical solutions with her, like leaving the room if she needs to cry, a private work space if that’s feasible, a leave of absence if it’s needed, an EAP if you have one. But he’s right about the main point: Having someone regularly cry “in meetings, at her desk, and during team lunches” would be disruptive and upsetting for most people.

It’s possible that all your long-time team members are used to it and happy to work around it … but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of them are really uncomfortable but think they have no choice but to accept it. And either way, it’s highly likely that the new employees joining your team won’t be comfortable having a colleague regularly crying in shared spaces.

Crying is a sign of distress, and a lot of people find it difficult to ignore that! Your new employees might have trouble focusing on their work when Vanessa is crying or might feel deep discomfort not acknowledging she’s distraught, and are likely to find it really upsetting themselves.

Vanessa is explaining this by saying she’s an empath … but what about others who also feel empathy for those around them and are being asked to work around someone who is so frequently venting intense feelings of sadness? Vanessa isn’t the only one whose feelings matter, and it’s not reasonable — or frankly kind — to ask people to accommodate this in their work space so frequently. You’re prioritizing Vanessa’s mental health and emotional needs at the expense of everyone else’s.

To be clear, this isn’t an across-the-board condemnation of tears at work. We are human and humans have emotional reactions. Sometimes that can mean tears. What’s disruptive here is the frequency.

I applaud that you want to make space for “the misfits, the quirky, the sensitive among us.” Workplaces often don’t do that enough, and some of the expectations we have around “professionalism” aren’t really necessary (and some are nothing more than sexism, racism, and/or ableism). But some of what professionalism encompasses are the things that make it possible for groups of people to work together smoothly and productively and reasonably pleasantly, like not regularly subjecting others to disruptive or emotionally draining behavior.

I can’t tell if Tim is your peer or if he’s senior to you. If he’s senior to you, this may not be your call anyway — but if he’s not, I hope you’ll listen to the perspective he offered you. He nailed it when he said that teams that have worked together for a long time sometimes don’t recognize dysfunction because they’ve all grown so accustomed to navigating around it.

{ 849 comments… read them below }

  1. WellRed*

    OP, you held up a team meeting while one colleague intercepted Vanessa while another scurried outside with a shovel! To hide the evidence. This is beyond ridiculous.

    1. Excitable Boy*

      I thought so too. I think it would be difficult to work on a team that had to be focused on one person’s inability to deal with the life or work events that aren’t wonderful/sugar sweet.

      1. Everything Bagel*

        I normally don’t think of a team lunch as a tragedy, so I have to wonder what was going on at the team lunch that made Vanessa cry. Was it due to joy, overstimulation? That seems like a lot to deal with for everybody else.

        1. Katie*

          No employee should be regularly crying at work. It’s much too distressing for everyone else. If she can’t keep it together most of the time, this may not be the job for her.

    2. andrea*

      This was actually the one instance I thought was maybe okay! I don’t think it’s regularly acceptable to cry in public spots at work, but I am the kind of person who will burst into tears at the sight of a freshly dead or twitching bird. I’d deal (by bursting into tears and then stifling them or quickly running to the bathroom) but if coworkers knew and one or two were heartier & felt like moving the poor dead bird, I’d be grateful. I don’t think it’s the end of the world to hold up a meeting because of a death, even if it is a bird death.

      1. vegan*

        But that’s only one instance. The LW is talking about many instances over a range of contexts.

        1. andrea*

          yep! that’s why this is a comment in reply to someone who brought up that one instance, and why my reply starts, “This was actually the one instance I thought was maybe okay! I don’t think it’s regularly acceptable to cry in public spots at work.”

          1. WellRed*

            When the team is running around to accommodate or avoid triggering the crying it’s moved beyond “oh just ignore me,” sniff sniff. Would she even have known about the bird at that point?

            1. Angel*

              Oh, just ignore me. Sniff, sniff! That’s gold! I am not being insensitive to Vanessa, but am concerned for the team overall. It can be a bit awkward.

      2. Susannah*

        I dunno. The issue here is that they scurried to make sure Vanessa didn’t see this and be triggered to weep. That on its own makes it clear her behavior is affecting the running of the workplace. If she’s crying regularly, and people are doing things to keep her from crying, or to constantly comfort her… something has to change. Either they go on with life as usual and simply do not react – let alone pre-emptively react – when she cries. Or she figures out a way to deal with this.

        I know it’s almost certainly not this way, but if I worked there, I would find the constant tears manipulative.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Their reaction was the absolute definition of “missing stair.” Everybody’s so used to having to work around Vanessa that it isn’t even seen as odd to hold up a work meeting for this (and to be fair, I would be horribly upset by that, as would other members of that team, I’d bet. But since Vanessa is “the crier” they all have to not be “a crier” in order to function as a work unit.

          She’s basically siphoning off anybody else’s right to be upset about anything since “that might set her off and we don’t have time to deal.”

          1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

            I came to the comments looking for the missing stair comment. Because she is it. And like I’ve said before about stepping over and around the missing stair…the stepper is going throw him/herself out of whack and the other stairs are going to get far more pressure on them.
            If there were a dead bird outside the meeting room window, OP as the manager should think, “wow, that’s unsettling at worst and distracting at best for my team. I’ll call maintenance and ask someone to come remove it.” Not, “oh no, Vanessa will be upset. Action plan, Death on Premises…you, shovel, you garbage bag, you distract Vanessa.”
            OP, it’s noble to create a welcome haven for quirky people. But, you can’t put the burden on your team.
            Manager of OCD employee who demanded no rings or one on each hand and bus riders OUTSIDE to line up boy girl;
            Manager who expected team members to drive anxious employee home after work and sit with her until she her partner got home;
            Don’t be that guy.

            1. Flowers*

              I’m sorry what? no rings or only 1 on each hand? they demanded their peers follow this? how did that work out?

              1. GraceC*

                The letter was “our company is making us do unreasonable things to accommodate a coworker’s mental health”

                1. NotBatman*

                  Holy guacamole. I’m not an OCD expert, but I am a psychologist, and that is *not* the way to relieve symptoms of OCD. The “there will be a catastrophe if people’s jewelry is asymmetrical” brain-loop is very real and very scary, but “there only hasn’t been a catastrophe because management forced everyone to have symmetrical jewelry” is not the way to handle it.

              2. Random Bystander*

                There wasn’t an update that I recall (though if there was, it probably would have been of the variety “LW got the **** out of Dodge”, where “Dodge” = company that puts the dys in functional.

                Things like someone getting a formal written warning for wearing a wedding ring (“you may either purchase and wear a second ring to wear on your other hand, or you may not wear your wedding ring”) and other outright nuttiness written into the dress code to accommodate the co-worker with OCD.

          2. Jellyfisher Catcher*

            The missing stair was my first thought as well. I say that as a women who very occasionally got teary at work – briefly and quietly in a bathroom stall.

            1. Sorrischian*

              I’ve cried at work – once much more publicly and dramatically than I’d like – when hard life and mental health stuff started bleeding into work. My coworkers were all kind enough to pretend it never happened at the time, but as a regular event? I cannot imagine asking people to just work around that.

        2. Aggretsuko*

          I may be miserable at work, but even I don’t want to work around a perpetual crier. It sounds terrible.

            1. USS Failure To Launch*

              Heck, even Deanna Troi usually kept it together when the hostile forces were threatening to attack unless they had some mind whammy trick, and she’s still half-human!

        3. JSPA*

          Or they may like her a lot, and want to avoid not her standard tears (which they can ignore) but actual distress.

          I don’t find it disruprive to work in an office with someone who has the feels about animals dying in crying of them. If they worked in a slaughterhouse it would be be untenable… but in an office setting it’s no worse than, “Billemina is freaked out by spiders, steal them for a moment while I evict the big one that’s scrambling in the sink.” Which, yeah, people do that for each other, not because they’re “warped,” but because everyone has some quirks and needs.

          Some people cry easily (without being terribly distraught) just as other people have sweaty palms (without being nervous).

        4. Orrlynow*

          Exactly. It is manipulative, and childish. And the “empath” nonsense? Just and excuse for her to continue to get away with what she’s doing with no consequences.

      3. Jen*

        I felt the same way. I’d be appreciative if someone spared me from having to deal with an animal’s death at work, and I’m not someone who routinely bursts into tears at meetings and lunches.

      4. Observer*

        The thing that’s troubling is that it seems like this is something that has become SO normal that everyone just jumps in and knows what to do, and that everyone also knows that her reaction is going to be more disruptive that holding up the meeting.

        I can see why Tim is calling this out so quickly. I could see being in that room and thinking “OMG! How often does this stuff happen that they are so smooth about it?!”

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, I’m wondering why she’s crying all the time. It’s even possible that she’s simply incapable of just being in an office without crying all the time, regardless of the job. If that’s the case, I doubt there’s any reasonable accommodation for her to continue working in that office or any other.

          I wonder, can her job be effectively done remotely? That would be a reasonable accommodation because it’s totally unreasonable to expect her coworkers to deal with the disruption of her crying what sounds like multiple times a day. I’m firmly on team Tim here, and I agree with Alison that the frequency of the crying is the problem.

          1. NotBatman*

            At minimum, it seems like Vanessa needs a different script. “Ugh, my face is leaking, but I’m gonna push through it” is the one I’ve seen work before — it acknowledges the reality but also makes clear that there’s no serious distress here through making light.

        2. rusty*

          Yeah, this is my take. I’ll gladly step in and help someone out if there’s something happening that they’re particularly squeamish or emotional about. I’ll evict spiders for the office arachnophobe and so on. But how is the team so used to this that there’s an unspoken protocol for how to work around Vanessa’s emotions? That signals to me that Vanessa’s feelings are way too present for everyone in the office. If she asks for someone else to deal with the bird, sure, I’d be sympathetic and dispose of the poor thing for her. If everyone immediately swings into action without having to be asked, that says something is out of whack.

        3. Random Dice*

          This right here.

          There should not be a well-oiled protocol at work for managing the outsized feelings of anyone! The fact that it was so instantly enacted among multiple people is really jarring.

          OP, a missing stair is a concept that Cliff at Pervocracy introduced:

          “Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

          Some people are like that missing stair.”

      5. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I’ll also agree that something abruptly hitting a window and dying is the exception that proves the rule. Lots of people don’t deal well with death/dead animals.

        Signed the person who once had to calm down a hysterical coworker who found a dead mouse in his office. Sigh, HE was 37 too.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          (Just as a clarification- this was an elementary school, He was the principal – and most of the kindergarten students handled the dead mouse with less fuss than the principal did. So the five and six year olds did better than a 37 year old.)

          1. I'm an Empath but PTSD Therapy Helped*

            As a fellow empath – someone with a painful level of personal connection to every emotion of every person around me – it was very helpful to learn that excessive empathy can be a symptom of PTSD.

            Hypervigilance means watching everyone all the time for subtle signs of danger, in a way that over time becomes subliminal and somatized into your body. For me, I “feel” others’ negative emotions in my stomach, though they’re nonspecifically bad.

            I always know when someone has dark thoughts behind their smiling mask – sometimes it feels like just sadness that’s focused on themselves, and other times it’s focused on me, like their evil brain worms are crawling all over me, or like invisible flying monkeys are swirling around me.

            PTSD therapy – especially EMDR – has finally allowed me to grow a bit of emotional skin so I’m not always so raw.

            I have no idea how this OP could apply this, though.

            1. Ace in the Hole*

              I bristle a bit at calling these reactions “empathy.” I think “reactivity” is more appropriate. Calling this type of reaction empathy implies that it’s in response to a real emotion in the other person, instead of a reaction to distorted perceptions that may contain some amount of truth.

              Empathy is about understanding and sharing someone else’s emotions. My experience has been that when people have these type of reactions, they’re rarely understanding and sharing the emotion I’m experiencing… they’re feeling something much stronger and/or different in nature than what I’m feeling. It’s not empathetic to, for example, be overwhelmed with sadness from being around someone who is just feeling a bit down. Or to be shaken and panicky from interacting with someone who is a bit frustrated but still polite. The emotional connection may be painful, but not because they are experiencing the same pain as the other person.

              I realize I’m being picky, but it’s an important distinction. I’ve had bad experiences with people using their “empathy” as reason to dismiss what I say about my own emotions or regard their reactions as more valid/true than my behavior. Not saying you do this – I just think it’s important not to use language that muddies the waters.

              1. gimble*

                Bingo, Ace.

                “I always know when someone has dark thoughts behind their smiling mask…”
                Well, no. As you said, your brain and body are hypervigilant to perceived negative feelings that could be threats…but that doesn’t mean what you’re perceiving is accurate. It’s frustrating when people project their own feelings onto others and insist they’re right.

                In Vanessa’s case, it’s hard to tell if the tears are about other people at all. It sounds like everybody else in these situations is fine? I’d just call that being very sensitive. If anything, everybody else is showing extreme empathy in how they’re accommodating and looking out for her.

                1. UKDancer*

                  This so much. I don’t think you can know when someone has dark thoughts. You don’t know with 100% accuracy what your colleagues are thinking or feeling and most importantly you don’t know why. Even if you can successfully intuit from body language or other cues that someone isn’t happy, you don’t know the reason. My last director sat through a key meeting once with a face like thunder, looking really unhappy and not saying much. I was worrying whether he was unhappy with me, my team or the project.

                  At the end he excused himself and said he had to run because he had a medical appointment with his partner to get the results of a biopsy. The “angry” expression was to do with the fact he was concerned about his partner’s health issue and it was preoccupying him.

              2. Agent Elrond*

                THIIIIIIIIIIIS. People who are stoic aren’t necessarily not empathetic, they’re just not exhibiting it.

                1. Bert*

                  empath: “I think I can somehow sense what people are like and judge them based entirely on something I’ve made up in my head”

                  it’s just the modern version of “I have psychic abilities”

      6. Ellis Bell*

        I agree with you on a lot of points; it’s not the end of the world and it’s a nice thing to do. However, it’s not that they were heartier, it’s that they were concerned. They were very concerned that Vanessa shouldn’t even see it and they are probably concerned every time they see her being upset. It’s a drain on other people’s strength, even if it’s a small one, and if they were simply friends it’d be on them to opt out if the small drain added up over time. I’m not slamming Vanessa here, being sensitive is not a bad thing and it was a reasonable suggestion that people ignore her. Obviously, they are not doing that though! I have noticed that very sensitive people tend to overestimate the ability of others to be insensitive just because it is isn’t showing. I don’t think the team, or OP is a hotbed of dysfunction either, they gave it a shot and it worked at least in the short term. Now, someone else has come in with a fresh eye and they don’t think this kind of thing will work. That they have seen some people try to prevent Vanessa’s tears over the bird, instead of ignoring them, is relevant information. They have more of a look into the future than OP did when she agreed to try ignoring it.

      7. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I am absolutely incapable of crying when I should (tragedy, grief, loss etc) But I am also incapable of getting through most movies without bawling my eyes out, so I kind of feel for you and (to some extent) Vanessa, because I know how it feels. I blew through probably a half box of Kleenex when watching Everything Everywhere All at Once and I have no explanation as to why, I was feeling generally happy and content and I could not make it stop. Honestly I’d feel terrible for the poor bird who flew into a reflection of probably a tree it was looking forward to perching in, to its untimely death. I wouldn’t cry, but I’d be upset and would be okay with it stopping a meeting for a few minutes. Maybe in the grand scheme of things that bird’s life was more important than our TPS reports!

      1. Eater of Cupcakes*

        Please ignore this comment. I only skimmed the original letter and missed that part. Very silly of me, I gotta admit.

    3. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      Exactly. I mean, if Vanessa had only just cried (softly, maybe quietly) because a bird died and Tim spoke up with these concerns, I’d think that was a step too far. I feel like I’m a pretty emotionally resilient person who’s good at managing my emotions, but a bird crashing into a window and dying in front of me would probably make me tear up too!

      It’s the fact that OP’s team scrambled to accommodate any sadness/emotion on Vanessa’s part like it was second nature that’s troubling here!

      1. RagingADHD*

        Yeah, the fact that the team had a sort of standing procedure in place to immediately respond by sheltering Vanessa, even before she saw anything or had an emotional reaction, indicates to me that they are spending way too much time and energy managing / heading off Vanessa’s emotional outbursts.

        If they were, as Alison says, “happy to work around it,” they wouldn’t be on high alert to protect her from being exposed to potentially upsetting input. They would just…work around it.

        They are trying to avoid the outburst so they don’t have to work around it.

        1. Observer*

          Yeah, the fact that the team had a sort of standing procedure in place to immediately respond by sheltering Vanessa, even before she saw anything or had an emotional reaction, indicates to me that they are spending way too much time and energy managing / heading off Vanessa’s emotional outbursts.

          Exactly. And they are soooo used to it that the OP doesn’t even see how beyond “quirky” this is.

        2. HumbleOnion*

          “They are trying to avoid the outburst so they don’t have to work around it.”

          Reading this it hit me – the coworkers are behaving the way people in abusive relationships behave.

        3. Dark Macadamia*

          This is what got me. “Someone stalled her” implies she DIDN’T EVEN SEE THE BIRD or know there was anything to be upset about. This office has a multi-person ORGANIZED PROCEDURE in place to prevent an adult’s meltdowns.

          1. Avi?*

            And an excessive procedure, at that. Surely they could’ve just closed the blinds and called maintenance to deal with it?

        4. MM*

          The last part. That’s exactly it. Working around it and actively managing it (because management isn’t!) are two different things.

        5. DyneinWalking*

          Yes! “Working around it” should mean:

          “Vanessa sometimes leaks from her face; she just cries more easily than most. If she continues her work like normal that means that she’s fine even if she looks distraught – so no need to tiptoe around her, just treat her like you normally would. If she is distraught, she’ll step away a few minutes to compose herself.”

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Yes to this. I wrote a lengthy comment above before I read yours, but what I was really trying to get out was what you said here. I do not see any meltdowns in OP’s description of what Vanessa does. I see some quiet, uncontrollable face-leaking that Vanessa herself said was ok for coworkers to ignore.

          2. Junie*

            Yeah, that seems good!

            The thing is, what if one of the newbies actually has a leaky face and can see that Vanessa’s crying is something else?

            I say this because my own eyes sometimes water – and not from crying or onions, usually from being really tired but still being on the subway or somewhere instead of already home. Maybe other people who had this came up with the “bored to tears” idea?

            If I was a newbie on the team and someone told me that Vanessa sometimes leaks from her face, I actually don’t know how I’d feel (once I noticed that Vanessa was actually crying) about being told that.

    4. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yes, I would consider that evidence that some of the team are indeed uncomfortable with her crying and just not voicing it. If it was just Vanessa’s quirk that they’ve learned to take in stride, they likely wouldn’t have sprang into action to prevent a crying episode they feared was imminent.

    5. Coffee Bean*

      I have to think, too that some of the co-workers that participated in the bird “cover up” might be trying to avoid an emotional outburst, because it makes them uncomfortable.

    6. CoinPurse*

      I had a super needy fragile colleague for whom massive binders of work arounds were created. When a new manager came in she was: “no, this cannot continue”. It was a *huge* relief when she handled this because no one wanted to say that Carmine was exhausting.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Wow. I hope that the previous manager who created this passion project of pity was managed out and not promoted.

      2. Emily*

        Thank goodness for the new manager! Having to work with people like Carmine and Vanessa is exhausting and is unfair to the rest of the office.

    7. Modesty Poncho*

      Well OK but would you NOT pause a meeting for a couple minutes to clean up a dead bird so no one had to see it???

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I absolutely would, because that is the correct thing to do for the entire time.
        The thought should have been, “this will be unpleasant for the team. I will call maintenance ask for someone to remove it. I will reschedule the meeting so that nobody gets stuck looking out the window.”
        It should not have been, “I will conscript my staff to either run interference with one colleague or clean up dead animals. Where’s the shovel?”

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Right calling maintenance or closing a curtain or having people face the other way is not the same level of reaction.

        2. Student*

          I find this kind of glimpse into other people’s workplaces so fascinating. The cultural differences can be so huge, while people are so matter-of-fact that their way is the *obvious correct* way to cope.

          I’ve never worked in an environment where people would reschedule the meeting so nobody had to look at the dead bird. I’ve never worked someplace where anybody would try to contact somebody else to remove the dead bird, nor hide the dead bird themselves, either.

          Any place I’ve worked would expect you to politely not mention or stare at the dead bird during the meeting. There would be zero consideration of moving the meeting or rescheduling; it just wouldn’t occur to anybody as an appropriate response. Either before or after the meeting, a couple people might stand around the dead bird and stare at it, with potential comments ranging from somber, to juvenile, to superstitious, to crude/gross. Someone might try to ascertain whether it was still alive. If the bird were alive but injured badly, I could see very real potential that one of my co-workers might take it upon themselves to put down the bird. In front of an audience of co-workers.

          I have worked at places with amateur taxidermists, who would potentially lay claim to a stray bird corpse and have to be corralled into storing the bird corpse someplace appropriate, such as in their personal vehicle. Without corralling, there would be a very real risk they might try to store it someplace inappropriate in the office, the laboratory, or (I shudder, but I do not jest) the shared break room kitchen.

          I was doing work just last week where somebody tried (and failed) to gross me out by pointing out a dead mouse, and I (accidentally) grossed them out in turn by informing them of the presence of several additional dead mice they hadn’t yet spotted nearby. At this same job, a coworker and I both separately stared at a dead lizard to see if we could figure out what kind of lizard it had been. I considered it a bonding moment with that co-worker, to be honest, because I was glad I wasn’t the only person who was curious about dead lizards. We left the ex-lizard and ex-mice where they had passed on, for a variety of reasons that were mostly about personal convenience.

          1. Yoyoyo*

            Yeah honestly this thread is making me question whether I’m some sort of monster, because while I love animals (and am easily moved to tears), my thought about a dead bird would be “huh, that was kind of upsetting” and immediately move on. I have never worked anywhere where a meeting would be disrupted, rescheduled, or moved because of this.

            1. Eldritch Office Worker*

              I think it depends on a number of factors such a gore, visibility, and how disruptive it seems to the people in the room. I would take it on a case by case basis, personally.

            2. Mark the Herald*

              I’m an enthusiastic bird watcher, and I get upset at a conservationist level about window strikes. I made my old job put up bird safe window decals. I might also call a wildlife rehabber, if I thought a bird could be saved.

              So I care… I just don’t see what good crying and freaking out is doing.

              1. MourningStar*

                My partner is an architect – at risk of derailing I wanted to mention here that bird strikes are things they take into account when installing large windows, and now there is specialty glass or film that can go onto glass to prevent bird strikes. It is something they encourage all their clients to use. Yay for thoughtful design!

            3. Melissa*

              Right?? I saw a dead bird as I was walking into a university class last week, actually, and I thought “Huh, dead bird” And stepped over it. I don’t *think* I’m a sociopath, but there are a lot of people on here who are clearly way more sensitive.

              1. Anne Elliot*

                +1. A lot of people here seem to be way more fussed about the inadvertent bird deceasement that I would be or would expect any one else to be, to the point that considering whether there really, truly is no blood left in my cold dead heart.

              2. UKDancer*

                Same. I went past one on the way to Tesco. I thought “yuck dead bird” made a mental note not to tread on it and resumed thinking about the shopping list. Obviously I’m not very sensitive.

            4. MM*

              I think some of it is just the somewhat random personal variation in how much of a crier a given individual is. I wondered if there was something wrong with me as a child because I didn’t cry at times lots of other people seemed to–on the last night of camp, or often at funerals. I eventually figured out I’m just not much of a crier (though I’ve become a bit more of one as I’ve gotten older). There’s nothing monstrous about it, nor does it indicate a lack of emotion–I’m very calm on the surface, but I feel things extremely deeply. It’s fine. It’s just the way I am.

            5. Laika*

              Yeah. My childhood home had a huge living room, well-lit by a large window, with a long table and tons of beautiful green plants. Unfortunately it also attracted countless birds that hit the window and often died. In the summer me or my sibling were told on a basically weekly to go chuck the dead birds away from the house/out of the garden.

              So, speaking as a seasoned dead bird veteran, apart from a couple feathers stuck to a window I have a hard time imagining a dead bird even really being that visible to people in a meeting. Like, they usually just hit the window and fall down. I guess maybe if there’s a really wide ledge that it gets caught on?

              This whole thing is wild. I kinda love it haha

              1. Avi?*

                My 8th grade school building (the town had that grade in it’s own separate building for Reasons) had large windows at the end of the hallways above one of the entrances that were magnets for the local pigeons. There would routinely be a bird print on the glass and a fresh corpse on the roof over the doorway below, and maintenance was never in any rush to remove them.

                As a bunch of snotnosed thirteen year olds, our overall response to this was a quick “Ew.” and then going on with our day.

            6. SimonTheGreyWarden*

              I think I am desensitized because when I was a child my house had huge windows in the living room, and my cat would lie in wait in the bushes and wait for the occasional bird-strike and then run out and, er, ‘finish the job.’

            7. NotJane*

              Same. My coworkers and I were sitting on the back porch eating lunch when we saw a hawk swoop down, grab a robin, then settle on the fence to enjoy it’s own lunch. After a few gasps of surprise from the group, it was just “Well, that’s the circle of life, lol.”

          2. Lenora Rose*

            Did you at least mention to maintenance or custodial staff that there were dead animal on site? I mean, being cool and calm about it yourself is one thing, as is being fascinated or curious (I have drawn dead bird remains and been absolutely delighted to see a falcon in mid feed and utterly oblivious to the matching state of the pigeon/meal), but unless this is some outdoor area, or an indoor one with a really good reason to have dead animals in it, the bare minimum is ensuring they get regularly cleaned away.

            1. Ace in the Hole*

              My assumption was that the bird flew into the outside of a window and fell on the ground outside. A single small dead bird outdoors shouldn’t normally require an urgent response or maintenance report about dead animals on site.

          3. AnonRN*

            I called maintenance (and apologized a lot, because it wasn’t their job but I wasn’t really sure whose job it was) to move/dispose of a dead bird that was visible on the roof outside a patient’s window. The patient couldn’t see it from in the bed but their family could and I figured a decomposing bird outside grandpa’s room might not instill confidence!

            Also for a while it was a thing that you needed to report bird carcasses to the Department of Health for some sort of avian flu testing. (Probably wouldn’t apply to a window strike where the cause of death was obvious.) I don’t know if that’s still true, though.

          4. Random Bystander*

            Well, with dead mice, I’d definitely want them moved (if I didn’t move them myself) because they will stink to eye-watering levels otherwise–I’m not sure why it seems that they stink more than other dead critters. Although the groundhogs at my son’s place (across the street from me) when the exterminator didn’t come for a week after the traps did give the mice a run for their money on stink.

      2. Julia K.*

        I would not pause a meeting to clean up a dead bird so no one had to see it, unless it was a customer-oriented location.

        Dead animals are a sad and unpleasant, but common, thing. Anyone who spends a healthy amount of time outside will see dead vertebrate animals several times a year. Birds that die from flying into windows are some of the least gross dead animals one encounters.

        If I had access to a shovel at work, I’d toss the dead bird into the nearest woods at my earliest convenience. But interrupting a meeting to do that seems unprofessional to me.

        To me this is a similar level of urgency (not emotion) as “someone dropped their sandwich outside.” A bit gross, and best to get cleaned up within the day so it doesn’t get grosser, but not an emergency.

      3. SarahKay*

        We didn’t deliberately pause a meeting when it happened to us. It kind of paused itself because within 10 seconds of the bird hitting the window and dying two crows had flown down to ‘investigate’ the carcass as we watched in fascinated horror.
        There was collective agreement that given how fast the crows were on it, passing out in the car park was clearly a bad idea for our health!
        Meeting then resumed, and Facilities were informed afterwards. No-one cried.

      4. Flipperty*

        But other employees (who may well have been equally upset by a dead bird but felt not allowed to express those feelings, since Vanessa is the Designated Feelings Haver) were not only forced to look at the dead bird but to actually touch and handle it. That’s not okay.

      5. zuzu*


        Is it dead? Like, for-real dead? Then what’s the issue? Pull the blinds, call maintenance, and move on. Freaking out about it isn’t going to bring the bird back, and unless it’s visible from where everyone’s sitting, it’s not going to be disruptive if nobody mentions it.

        Is it dying? Like, squawking and flapping and making a lot of upsetting noises and hitting the window? Then yeah, you’ll want to deal with it. Probably still have to call maintenance, and you’ll probably need to relocate your meeting.

        Birds die. It’s sad, but I’ll be honest, I never realized just HOW MANY dead birds were around until I fostered a coonhound, who managed to find (and eat!) dead birds on nearly every walk that neither I nor my other dog ever noticed before.

    8. tbs*

      To all the commenters to this comment saying – “ well, a dead bird would make me cry too! It’s a nice gesture to move it!” – keep in mind that in the scenario described you’d be one of the co-workers cleaning up the dead bird, you wouldn’t be Vanessa. And that’s the issue – many of those co-workers might have been distraught at the dead bird, but couldn’t be upset because they had to cater to the feelings with the person who constantly makes their emotions the biggest emotions of the group.

      1. mean green mother*

        Yes, this is it exactly. Vanessa sucks all of the emotional air out of the room: there’s none left for anyone else.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        Very good point. As an empathetic person, I can’t concentrate when someone else is in obvious distress. Just yesterday I turned off the fan and fetched a blanket for a coworker with poor circulation who couldn’t stop shivering. Vanessa would be a constant drain on my ability to work efficiently.

      3. Always a Corncob*

        THIS. There is only room for one Vanessa on the team. Everyone else is tiptoeing around Vanessa or smoothing her path. Personally, I find declaring yourself an “empath” to be a red flag because it’s so often used by people who are just self-centered and think their emotional reality is the only one that matters, and everyone else should revolve around them.

  2. BaskingInMyWindowlessOffice*

    I would think about how the team will react. If Vanessa says something to them, or asks them if her crying affects them, and then rally behind her, then you might end up with a bigger problem on your hands than is worth creating right now, as the team is merging.

    1. Artemesia*

      I’d not worry too much about that. The behavior is ridiculous and a classic missing stair. No one should be able to hold a team hostage to their emotions. An occasional teary episode handled by leaving and getting a grip is acceptable. This constant drama is simply not.

      1. Marianne*

        It’s not drama if they mostly ignore it, though. If I knew someone whose natural response to a lot of things was crying, but they said to just ignore it, then I’d ignore it as long as it wasn’t moaning and sobbing.

        The whole bird thing did seem a bit much to me and if I were new I’d probably roll my eyes at that, but if others wanted to do a kindness and take care of it, then how can that be bad?

        1. cabbagepants*

          If we could really know for sure that everyone is truly able to ignore the behavior without it effecting them, that would be one thing, but we can’t know that. it’s been going on for ten years! people probably think they aren’t allowed to express dislike around it.

          The whole bird incident shows, though, that the team isn’t actually allowed to ignore Vanessa. rather, they are all primed to spring to action to shield her from anything that would make her cry.

          1. Observer*

            people probably think they aren’t allowed to express dislike around it.

            Of course they do. And with good reason.

            1. RussianInTexas*

              Because there will be another emotional outburst from it and they don’t want to deal with it. And because the current team lead allows it.

          2. rusty*

            Yes! Ignoring Vanessa would not involve silently and smoothly leaping into coordinated action to avoid upsetting Vanessa. That’s not what ignoring looks like.

        2. Antilles*

          “They mostly ignore it” only works so long as the entire team is experienced and accustomed to it. A newbie walking into this merger meeting and seeing her cry over totally normal reorganization talk is going to be freaked out.

          In the missing stair analogy, this is the equivalent of having a friend over to your house with the missing stair. The homeowners might be so accustomed to jumping over the missing stair, but the friend goes home with a broken ankle because of course they aren’t expecting a giant hole in the staircase.

          1. Rex Libris*

            Also, the fact that they can mostly ignore it doesn’t mean they should have to. Everyone is entitled to a relatively positive and drama free work environment, even when they’ve apparently learned to cope in the absence of one.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          This isn’t fair.

          There are different grades of “ignoring it”. You’re assuming that they are genuinely ignoring it, as in genuinely not caring, and that everyone can do that, but at least some of them are probably working hard to ignore it. I could surface-level ignore it but I’d be miffed that my manager wasn’t asking Vanessa to do more to manage it herself versus us managing it for her, and I’d be job-searching if it didn’t change.

          Also, the subtext here is that if people are bothered by Vanessa’s “quirkiness”, that’s their problem, except their emotional comfort is just as important as Vanessa’s and the approach needs to be to meet somewhere in the middle, rather than just working around the squeakiest wheel.

        4. Observer*

          It’s not drama if they mostly ignore it, though

          Except that they are NOT ignoring it. Rather they have developed a bunch of strategies to avoid it, some of which apparently have some real impacts.

          Let’s face it, the group essentially stalled the start of a meeting to keep her from melting down.

          1. Cait*

            I was wondering what people do if they need to talk to her about something work related but she’s in the middle of another crying jag. Personally, I would never want to approach a coworker to talk about this month’s budget while she was openly sobbing, even if she insisted I just “ignore it”. So now this might mean you can’t get your work done in a timely manner because every time you try to talk to Vanessa she’s weeping at her desk again. There’s no way this behavior isn’t disruptive.

        5. beanie gee*

          The “cried throughout the meeting about the merger” sounded intense also. I totally get just letting people emote, but listening to someone cry for a whole meeting that’s about an important business topic would be difficult for me to ignore.

          1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

            My problem with this bit is, every single person was having their own professional life rocked to the core in this meeting. There were important things to hear and to ask.
            Vanessa cried throughout.
            Your staff needed that information. I’m super curious, OP. Did anyone ask questions, make comments, extend the meeting in anyway? Or did they all happen to follow up with questions once they were back at their desks?
            Did conversations about the merger pop up organically in the office afterward or was everyone afraid to set off Vanessa?

            1. Harper the Other One*

              Ooh, this is a very insightful question because I bet you’re right; people had questions they didn’t ask on the spot because they didn’t want to extend Vanessa’s crying.

            2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

              Wow, I love this question and wish there was a way to flag it for OP to see!

            3. L.Miller*

              Great point about the other employees needing to process this major shift. How unfair to them if indeed they were unable to express their thoughts or concerns at that pivotal meeting if indeed it was hi-hacked by one employee.
              It is applicable to the whole situation really.
              Every day people go to work and have to accommodate Vanessa but they no doubt have their own situations to deal with and probably have moments they’d like to feel free to break down.
              But management had made it clear that only Vanessa was to be accommodated by everyone. And I’m betting many people are very unhappy with that. But feel they can’t reveal that.
              I’ll also bet many are very much hoping that Tim gets a handle on it.

      2. Artemesia*

        yeah no — constantly weeping in meetings and at one’s desk is performative, it is intrusive, it is completely inappropriate in an office.

    2. L-squared*

      I mean, they can react how they like to defend her, that still doesn’t make her behavior appropriate. Plenty of “popular” employees do things that aren’t good for the workplace. We can’t just let their popularity and have other rallying behind them stop the behavior from being dealt with

      1. BaskingInMyWindowlessOffice*

        I’m not saying ignore her behavior and let it continue, I’m saying think about the larger team as you address it and that may be a reason to take a softer approach and not a tough love approach. Don’t own goal yourself and create a bigger problem.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          I wonder about the term “tough love.” I feel it comes from OP and not his new manager. I think Tim is going to have a “tough conversation.” This isn’t about love and friendship and quirky haven, this is about respecting the needs of all coworkers, treating everyone fairly, setting boundaries for behavior.

          1. MassMatt*

            IMO the new boss has made it clear he finds the crying unacceptable and says (rightly, clearly) that organizations can become dysfunctional without even realizing it. He wants to get rid of the crier and LW’s soft pedaling of the issue is placing her own job in jeopardy.

            Mergers and reorganizations are prime times where companies look to cut costs or get rid of problem employees. And many new managers make a point of looking for someone to fire immediately in order to establish their authority (not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s most definitely a thing).

            Vanessa should have been told long ago that this was an unacceptable way to behave and she needs to take steps to change her behavior. It might be too late now but better late than never.

            I could not stand to work with someone like Vanessa, I can only imagine there are others that feel the same way and leave over it. Vanessa is costing this company employees.

            1. Yowza*

              I don’t disagree but fwiw it doesn’t say that the team has lost any members and says the team has been together 5 years.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Vanessa’s behavior is unprofessional and inappropriate, regardless of what other staff think. The LW is missing the dysfunction big time, and I’m not sure why. It’s right THERE!

      Ironically, if Vanessa is a true empath, then why isn’t she picking up on discomfort and the tiptoeing around her? She would have known that people had angst even if she didn’t know about the dead bird specifically.

      1. Observer*

        The LW is missing the dysfunction big time, and I’m not sure why. It’s right THERE!

        This is what people mean when they talk about the “missing stair” phenomenon.

        1. I am Emily's failing memory*

          Reminds me of a punchline in the too-soon-canceled-and-holds-up-surprisingly-decent show Better Off Ted:

          The Company had recently installed the toilet paper holders really far away from the toilets in the restrooms, to try to influence people to use less by making it inconvenient.

          One of the scientists is complaining to the other about this, and the second scientist says, “Just do like I do, take the roll with you when you sit down.”

          First scientist exclaims, “That’s not normal!”

          Second scientist shrugs and says, “It becomes normal. Everything does if you do it enough.”

          Second scientist was dead on.

          1. Lydia*

            Some of my favorite moments are from Better Off Ted and I will quote the scientist describing the flavor of lab-produced meat forever.

            1. Laika*

              I read a news article recently about a lab-grown meatball made partially of mammoth meat..but the only reason I’d clicked on the link was because I had to convince myself it wasn’t just an image of Blobby. And immediately thought to myself, “I bet it tastes like despair.”

      2. BaskingInMyWindowlessOffice*

        Again, I’m not saying their opinion makes the behavior more or less professional. I’m just saying LW and the other manager should factor this into how they approach her and handle it.

      3. Mark the Herald*

        Yeah… I feel like we are using a pretty squishy definition of “empath” here. I’ve always thought it meant a deep concern and sensitivity toward the emotions and needs of those around you. This sounds more like someone who is very emotionally reactive and cannot or will not moderate her behavior.

        1. Storm in a teacup*

          I was wondering when someone would say this!
          As you say an empath is someone who feels deeply what others feel / should feel.
          This person seems more of a succubus.

        2. Cait*

          When I was reading this letter, I wondered if OP ever brought up seeing a doctor to Vanessa. Now, I’m not a doctor and I normally wouldn’t suggest someone elbow into a coworker’s medical situation, but I’d be hard pressed to believe that this is just “being an empath” if it’s really happening so often it’s become a problem. I think if she did approach Vanessa about it, it would have to be in the realm of getting professional advice on how to accommodate her as per ADA compliance. Tim might be insisting on “tough love” because he has no idea what else to do to mitigate the problem. But if this is a medical issue, and a doctor can diagnose how best to accommodate it, then that would make finding a solution much easier. I’m guessing it never occurred to Vanessa or the OP to bring it up because everyone has been programmed to just take Vanessa’s crying jags as part of the office norm.

          But, again, I’m not sure how OP would approach this without it seeming like she’s crossing some boundaries.

          1. Twix*

            I think this is exactly the right solution, and it sounds like what Tim has in mind. If this is a legitimate medical/psychological issue, that’s perfectly fine, but there needs to be documentation and an actual accommodation plan that doesn’t unfairly burden everyone else. If this isn’t a medical/psychological issue, it shouldn’t be given anywhere close to this degree of accommodation.

        3. Coconutty*

          I think “empath” has just become one of those buzzwords that people turn into a personality. It doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with real empathy, it usually means someone who sucks all the emotional bandwidth out of the room and expects everyone else to accommodate them and them alone.

          (Personally, I can’t stand the word. Are you an empathetic person? Great? Do you describe yourself as an empath? Uh-oh.)

        4. NotBatman*

          Yes. I’m a psychologist, and that caused my eyebrows to shoot up. There isn’t a scientifically recognized personality type known as “empath,” and there’s no equivalent concept in the literature. (High neuroticism + high emotional intelligence, I guess?) It’s a useful term, if it helps people express “seeing others’ distress is likely to trigger distress in me” but it’s not a disability, it’s not a condition, and it’s not a symptom.

          To be clear, Vanessa’s distress is probably very real. But inability to be around others’ emotions isn’t something the ADA covers.

        1. LR*

          Truth. In my experience, they very often mean:

          -I cry or act upset a lot to a degree that’s often inappropriate.
          -Your things are actually about me! If something bad happens to you, be ready to comfort me.

          1. Empathy With Thee And Me*

            This was DEFINITELY me as an “empath” type, back in my kid years and twenties. Then I finally realized I was being inappropriate and harming others with my behavior and grew the f*ck up. I still have sudden and annoyingly outsized emotional reactions to unexpected situations all too often, but now I keep it to myself. And I also do my best to let someone who’s having trouble let out their own feelings in a healthy way without usurping the situation.

            (I may have gone too far in the other direction: now people I know are surprised at how “unemotional” and “what a good listener” I am. Or maybe I just seem that way to them now because I always had such oversized emotions and reactions in the past. I definitely do not see myself to be unemotional, at the very least.)

            The solution to toxic empathy isn’t to bend yourself into knots to keep the empath happy. It’s for the empath to get their crap together and manage themself and their emotions like a healthy adult.

          2. Kate*

            That matches everyone who’s self-described themselves as an empath to me as well.

            Everything is about them and their emotional responses. Everything.

      4. Sopranohannah*

        Honestly, someone saying they’re an empath is a red flag for me. I’ve never met someone that straight up said they were an empath that was actually good at reading or responding to other people’s feelings. They’ve all just had Really Big Feelings that were sooo much more important than everyone else’s and expected everyone to cater to them. I was on Tim’s side the moment I read that.

      5. I Fought the Law*

        Because there’s no such thing as an empath. That’s not a real thing. It’s fine to be deeply empathetic. But “empath” is, in my experience, a word mostly used by pretty terrible people as they weaponize their emotions, performative or otherwise. By her use of that word alone, I can also virtually guarantee that Vanessa is a white woman, and I wonder how her BIPOC coworkers feel about her constant emoting. She’s sucking the air out of the room constantly and never leaving room for anyone else’s feelings or reactions.

        1. rusty*

          Yepppp. I experience an unhelpful degree of empathy and generally excessive vigilance around other people’s feelings, because I was raised with a mentally ill parent and terrible boundaries. I am working hard in therapy to come up with better boundaries. I’m not An Empath. I’m not a special magical kind of person who needs a special label, I am in fact dysfunctional, and nothing about my situation means that I don’t have to bother containing my emotions at work.

        2. Twix*

          Yep. I have no problem with the actual definition of “empath” – “Someone who feels empathy much more strongly than the average person and is particularly adept at recognizing other peoples’ emotions”. By that definition, I’d probably qualify. But far, far more often than not I see it used to mean “Someone who feels emotions so strongly that they should be exempt from following social norms and respecting boundaries”.

    4. T.N.H.*

      I think this could be said of any toxic behavior from an employee and is exactly why OP should have nipped this in the bud a lot sooner.

    5. Office Lobster DJ*

      I share the concerns about the timing and the wider team’s reaction. Maybe the team would be relieved to see someone tackle this situation (many would), but if the team instead rallies behind Vanessa and perception is that big bad new boss Tim is going after poor sensitive Vanessa who would never hurt an injured bird, who knows what could happen.

      How that concern would change my advice is that OP should consider the stability and well-being of the team at this critical time as priority number one. This might mean putting aside your own preferences or “being the bad guy” in the name of the greater good.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I really feel this. The staff has been in “vanessa first” mode for five years. It is ingrained. Coming in and saying, nope, we are not going to do this anymore could backfire.
        People hate change. People like to feel they are in control of SOMETHING.
        Don’t make this a thing we will be reading about next year’s “what caused the biggest blow out at your office?”
        – we got new desk phones and people lost their minds
        – we changed the coffee and people lost their minds
        – the vendor sent different free cookies and people lost their minds.

        1. Mark the Herald*

          Chairs, man.

          I’ve been a three offices now relations broke down completely about which office chairs to get. Like, from kumbaya and rainbows to meetings where people were so upset they stood and shouted. Words about other people’s taste and aesthetic values. Judgements about who was thrifty vs. trashy. Camps dividing between “ooh hoo hoo Little Lord Fauntleroy, but in my day we slept on rocks!” versus “this place is going to look like an on-fire crack house and our clients will turn and flee if we let them past reception.”


        2. vegan*

          Not everyone hates change, and not everyone has to feel in control “of SOMETHING.” Besides, I admire Tim for making this a priority. I mean, what – everyone is supposed to abide Vanessa’s tears indefinitely, no matter the context? That’s the kind of toxicity a lot of people seek to avoid. More power to you, Tim.

          1. Office Lobster DJ*

            Can only speak for my own take, but it’s not about “indefinitely.” It’s about this being a time of flux for the team where they are building trust and rapport with Tim. They’re sizing him up, just as much as the reverse. Dysfunctional as this situation may be, there is a risk to Tim if he’s perceived as a bully going after poor helpless Vanessa.

            That risk can be mitigated in a few ways. First, by letting Tim establish himself a bit more with the team, the better to weather the waves this causes. The other way, if this is going to be handled now, is to have known-quantity-OP do more of the heavy lifting. In my estimation, it’s just as well that the issue got tabled for the moment.

            1. LR*

              There’s a greater risk to Tim if he’s seen as incompetent and unwilling to lead because he refuses to nip this wildly inappropriate behavior in the bud. Many of his best, most reasonable employees will see this as a lack of leadership.

              If this was my team, I would never be mean to Vanessa or complain to my boss, who clearly thinks she’s handling things just fine, but I would be very, very sick of this behavior. That’s not even going into the other new team members who are very unlikely to be comfortable with all this.

              Saying “don’t curtail unreasonable behavior because some of the team might actually like it” is so wildly illogical that I’m shocked this become a discussion point. If someone is unwilling to ever work with Tim or give him the benefit of the doubt because he told someone it’s not ok to constantly cry at work, that person is probably way too deep in this very unhealthy culture and needs to be let go.

              1. Mister_L*

                An aspect of the “missing stair” that is often overlooked when quoting it is, that the person pointing it out is considered to be in the wrong by the in-group. Nevertheless, it sounds like half of the team is new and probably not used to, let’s be blunt, coddle Vanessa.

                Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into a “team drives away every replacement for a deceased teammember”-situation, because with half of the team not on board it could crash the whole department.

            2. Office Lobster DJ*

              “Saying “don’t curtail unreasonable behavior because some of the team might actually like it” is so wildly illogical that I’m shocked this become a discussion point.”

              I’m so confused — no one is saying this. No one is even suggesting the original team likes this behavior, just that it’s entrenched at this point.

              1. BaskingInMyWindowlessOffice*

                Exactly. It is not about whether to tell her there need to be changes to her behavior, but about how to do it. It might warrant conversations with the whole team or something bigger thansolely talking to her about it.

  3. Nina Bee*

    Work shouldn’t be pseudo-therapy. Vanessa needs to deal with how to handle herself in a professional environment, no matter how empathic she feels she is (I’m also an empath but would not act that way).

    1. lilsheba*

      Same here. I am an empath and feel the feels about so much, and the feels of people around me, and get overwhelmed by people very quickly. But anything work involved doesn’t make me cry, there isn’t anything there all that emotional.

      1. Michelle Smith*

        I have cried at work more than I’d like (not as much as Vanessa, only a handful of times but still embarrassing) and I have very unstable emotions, but I agree generally. There isn’t much at work I find that upsetting/emotional.

    2. Quite anon*

      As an empath, Vanessa acting in this way would actively make me depressed. This isn’t empathy.

      1. ThePear8*

        Same here – seeing other people cry often makes me upset and even tear up too! This would be extremely difficult for me to ignore or work around.

    3. Cheezmouser*

      My husband is an empath and doesn’t cry constantly. The most common emotions he picks up at work are coworkers’ stress/anxiety/frustration/insecurity/ego, not sadness.

      Regardless, Vanessa needs to develop her own coping strategies, possibly with the help of a therapist. Having coworkers bend over backwards to protect Vanessa only delays her from developing the strategies she needs to function. My husband has coping strategies such as separating his own emotions from the emotions of those around him, going outside, letting in fresh air, moving away from people, etc. As Alison suggested, she should find out what works for her and see if her workplace can accommodate her.

      1. Lydia*

        It’s interesting that you mention a lot of OTHER emotions that she doesn’t seem to pick up on, unless every emotion causes a crying reaction. Which is odd. You’re happy, she cries. You’re anxious, she cries. You’re really frustrated about the printer not working, she cries.

    4. AA Baby Boomer*

      Is by saying she is an “empath” a manipulaiton? By throwing that out there, she’s forcing others to accomidate and deal?

      I have severe anxiety and I use medication and other tools to handle it. I do not expect accomidation beyond the ability to attend my thereapy and doctor appointments. She would send me over the rails.

      1. hbc*

        She may only be intending it as an explanation, but the majority of times I’ve heard “empath” deployed, it’s been intended as a get-out-of-bad-behavior free card. The people who feel the need to announce their status aren’t very empathetic–they’ll

        You can’t say “I’m an empath so y’all just have to let me cry anywhere and only deliver feedback in a compliment sandwich that has eight slices of bread” any more than you can say “I have anger management issues so I’ll be muttering angrily at my desk on a daily basis and I’ll be walking out of meetings if I think they’re a waste of my time.”

      2. Lucky Meas*

        This is how I read almost every utterance of “I’m an empath”. It’s an excuse for inappropriate behavior that centers the speaker and cries for pity.

      3. Ultra Anon*

        I’ve known my share of self-described empathy, and every one of them was just exhausting to be around. You couldn’t ever confide in them because they would always turn the discussion to themselves to the point you were soothing them and managing their feelings about your problem. I’m sure actual empathy don’t behave this way, but sometimes I think it’s a cover for covert narcissism.

      4. Nina Bee*

        hard agree, there’s a little too much of allowing herself to be coddled in that scenario. She should really look at talking to a professional to get to the root cause of why she cries so much (which could be a serious issue and I do feel for her if that’s the case), rather than just collecting enablers

    5. Turquoisecow*

      Empath doesn’t mean super emotional it means you’re absorbing other people’s feelings. I’d be working hard to clamp down on my own feelings because I didn’t want to inconvenience everyone and potentially feel their negative emotions by disrupting the workday. Like the meeting started late. How many other team meetings have been totally derailed because she cried in the middle and everyone stopped work to make he feel better? That’s not empathy, that’s making everything about you and your feelings and disregarding everyone else’s feelings and needs, including those of the business. What if they miss important deadlines because they have to have a half-day impromptu therapy session with her?

      1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        nod. I do absorb emotions. I’m more balanced now that I have medication, but I avoid a lot of in person nonsense

        1. Lydia*

          I’m curious, though, when you do absorb emotions from people, do you express the same emotion. If someone feels frustrated and pick up on that, do you feel frustrated, too? How do you express that emotion you’re picking up on? I’m wondering why her empathy is only expressed through crying and if that’s common (not just crying, but having a consistent reaction to other people’s emotions).

          1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

            no, I just internalize so if I’m in a big meeting full of stressed people I’m stressed out too. I do not know why she cries, but sometimes I cry when overwhelmed or stressed. Her threshold for tears is probably just lower.

            1. connie*

              That’s not being an empath. That’s being a normal human being in a room full of stressed people. Emotions have a contagious element. There’s nothing special about that.

    6. allathian*

      Vanessa isn’t an empath. If she were, she’d be reacting to the feelings of those around her. As it is, she’s the missing stair who’s forcing everyone else to manage her emotions. She’s sensitive, and cries easily, but she’s not doing anything to make things more comfortable for the people around her, as I suspect a real empath would try to do.

      I’m an empath in the sense that I’m pretty good at reading the room and gauging the feelings of others in the same physical space, but I don’t get overwhelmed by other people’s emotions, at least not unless they’re really extreme. Working with a crier like Vanessa would definitely make me uncomfortable, though.

    7. MigraineMonth*

      I always thought being an empath was a sci-fi concept, not a personality type. I would describe myself as empathetic, as in I’m sensitive to others emotions (particularly distress). For me that doesn’t mean I mirror others’ emotions, though; quite the opposite. I usually become eerily calm to deescalate the situation, then deal with my own emotions later.

      1. Nina Bee*

        there’s actually two types of ’empathy’ (according to science) .. one is sympathy (where you recognise the other person’s emotion and behave in a way to acknowledge that but don’t necessarily feel the same thing) and one is empathy (where you actually feel what the other is feeling in yourself) :)

        1. penny dreadful analyzer*

          It’s fascinating to me that the terms “sympathy” and “empathy” have switched definitions as “empathy” has become the more popular term–“sympathy” has a long history of meaning sharing the feelings of another, and “empathy” was coined pretty specifically to mean a measure of distance–insight into or understanding of someone else’s psychological or emotional state, without necessarily sharing it.

          I wonder if it’s just that “empathy” has become the higher-status word, so it gets applied to whatever Thing About Feelings the speaker thinks is better or more evolved, and there’s been shifts in what various parties think is the higher-status way to relate to other people’s feelings.

      2. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

        I mean, it is a sci-fi concept. It was popularized by Star Trek long before it shows up in any psychological research…and the rate at which it has been adopted by the internet has far, far outpaced any research on the topic.

        When people say they are empaths, what they are generally saying is that the emotions they percieve in others heavily impacts their own emotional state. That is fair and there is plenty of evidence that some people do have more affective empathy than others. This is akin to what you’re saying when you describe yourself as an empathic person.

        There are some claims that some people have empathic ability that allows them to pick up on emotional states…essentially psychically. This is where we should be really wary. I think we should be very skeptical of Vanessas (or any others) who claim to be ‘picking up’ on feelings that other people deny having. As others have pointed out, this often feels like it is used as a pass for bad emotional regulation.

  4. ItIsWhatItIs*

    It is bonkers to me that, to prevent Vanessa from having a melt down, your employees had to rush to dispose of a dead bird so she didn’t see it If that doesn’t strike you as dysfunctional I think your radar is a bit broken LW.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Ehhhh. I know some people who are REALLY, really sensitive to things involving animals, and having to deal with dead birds isn’t really a job requirement. It was kind that the team cared to do that, and absent all other context that wouldn’t bother me.

      That said, with all the other context I agree it’s a red flag that they are bending over backwards to accommodate this person’s emotional needs way too regularly.

      1. I edit everything*

        Surely the bird wouldn’t be visible from inside, though. With a window strike like that, the bird just drops straight down. You’d have to be right up at the window and looking at the ground to see it. I could see Vanessa getting upset if she witnessed the bird strike, but moving a bird she wouldn’t see anyway? Ehhhh.

        1. Rainbow*

          Only bird strike I ever saw at work was in a glass-fronted building. It was really very grim, and everyone could see it who walked down the corridor. I didn’t cry but once I’d noticed it I made sure not to look that way again. I love cats and if I saw one dead I would probably be upset for like a month ngl

          1. Lydia*

            Once, on my way to work, I struck a bird and it got caught in my grill. I didn’t realize it, but some of my students did and very kindly volunteered to get rid of it. I still frequently think of that poor bird. Animals tend to stick with me, so I know if I had heard about or seen the bird it would have been an intrusive thought for a while. I’m with Eldritch Office Worker. Cleaning up a dead bird on its own if you know someone is sensitive to animals is not the issue; it being one of many work-arounds and having an advance team ready to intercept her is.

      2. Ama*

        I think it depends on what was done. If the team member stepped out and said “Vanessa you might want to wait a bit, a bird hit the window and you might want to stay here while it’s cleaned up,” that’s one thing. If the team member couldn’t even tell Vanessa what was going on because it would set her off, that is being too accommodating.

      3. Snow Globe*

        I do wonder—did they rush to do this because they feel compassion for Vanessa, or because they didn’t want to have to deal with her likely reaction?

        1. Lavender*

          That’s what I was wondering. It’s fine to want to avoid making a coworker sad, if it can reasonably be avoided. But you’re avoiding it because the effects of making them sad would be catastrophic, that’s not a good dynamic.

        2. Dust Bunny*

          I would do it to avoid her reaction.

          I mean, it definitely would bother me that the bird died, but I could handle that much better than Vanessa’s sobbing.

        3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          Almost certainly because they didn’t want to have to deal with her reaction. I bet they’re sick of her. They’ve shown far more patience with it than I would have.

      4. hbc*

        Yeah, you can be the person who can’t handle animal fatalities, or the person who doesn’t take feedback very well, or the person who somehow causes more little disruptions than average. You can’t be all of those things.

        1. Lavender*

          I agree. It’s okay to have quirks, and it’s okay to be unusually sensitive. It’s not okay to let those behaviors go unchecked to the point that your coworkers feel like they can’t let you see or experience any situation that *might* upset you.

    2. Lavender*

      I think there’s a difference between “we shouldn’t let Vanessa see the dead bird because it will make her sad,” and “we absolutely cannot let Vanessa see the dead bird because otherwise we’ll spend the whole meeting managing her feelings.” The first option is fine (and arguably a kindness), but it sounds like the second option might be at least partially at play here, and that’s an issue.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yes that’s a more nuanced articulation of the point I was trying to make. I agree.

      2. Mockingjay*

        That’s what I was coming to say. OP, you and your team are managing Vanessa’s feelings, not work tasks. You need to redirect the focus.

        The fact that team members jumped to avoid catastrophe so quickly tells me that they are tired of Vanessa’s outbursts and are taking it upon themselves to mitigate/prevent, because you aren’t.

      3. Lavender*

        Addendum: if it were purely the first option, the other people in the meeting would be able to say something like, “Hey Vanessa, there’s a dead bird outside the window of the conference room and I know that kind of thing gets to you, so it’s okay if you want to wait outside until it’s been cleaned up.”

        The fact that they couldn’t even tell her about the dead bird without potentially detailing the meeting makes it seem like there’s more going on here.

      4. Pennyworth*

        A normal reaction would be “Vanessa, why don’t you it with your back to the window, there is a dead bird out there” followed by ”Vanessa, why don’t you take a minute or two and come back to the meeting when you have recovered your composure”. She needs to know that she can’t sit in a meeting with tears streaming down her face and that she needs to regulate her behavior. I’m totally with Tim.

      5. ItIsWhatItIs*

        This also read to me that it was option two. They went to pretty great lengths in an office setting to avoid her getting a hint of it. They must be exhausted managing her emotions to keep the work day going even semi-smoothly.

        1. Lavender*

          Yeah, if it’s possible to easily prevent a coworker from seeing something that might upset them, I’d say that’s reasonable to do. For example, if I had a coworker who was very squeamish about blood, I might give them a heads-up to stay away from an area where someone was cleaning up after a bad cut or nosebleed. But when it becomes a multi-person effort to prevent the person from seeing even a hint of the thing that might upset them, it’s gone too far. (To use the same example, I wouldn’t tell the hypothetical coworker who was bleeding to escape out the back door while another coworker staged a distraction.)

          1. elle *sparkle emoji**

            Yeah, I think this is a good comparison. I’m bad with blood, but it would be unreasonable to expect others to enact an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper to prevent me from witnessing any blood. This situation feels like its swung to the extreme of accommodating Vanessa, possibly to the detriment of other coworkers’ needs.

      6. House On The Rock*

        Yes perfectly stated. I am, perhaps, not getting all the background, but my sense from the letter was this was an orchestrated effort to shield Vanessa because her reaction to the bird would consume the team.

        I’m very sensitive to the slightest animal suffering, but I’d be mortified if someone thought they had to intercept me while a colleague disposed of a dead bird!

  5. SlimJimbutnotSlim*

    Honestly, this sounds like the plot to episode of The Office: every meeting cuts to one person crying, then when they hire someone new that person is visibly concerned when this person is crying during a celebration lunch but everyone else treats it normal. Hilarity ensues.

      1. Anonymosity*

        Colin Robinson is the energy vampire. He was dating Evie the emotional vampire at his work but she was too much even for him.

      2. LifeBeforeCorona*

        As soon as Colin Robinson ventured into his office as an energy sucking vampire, I recognized at least 4 co-workers as the same.

  6. zinzarin*

    My money says Tim is a reader of this column. His language–as passed on by OP–sounds like it’s really close to an Alison script.

    1. Agent42*

      Tomorrow: “I recently started a new job that I’m really excited about thanks to all your interviewing and resume advice. It is a significant increase in pay and a great chance to join a growing team after a merger. It seems like a fantastic opportunity! I’m struggling with how to approach one of the long-standing team members though….”

    2. Olive*

      Saying “I cry a lot, please just ignore it and it will be fine” also sounds like an Alison script.

      But I’d expect that for someone tearing up quietly at their own desk or not being able to put their feelings aside when dealing with bad news. “at… team lunches” really took me aback. I don’t really like dealing with other people’s strong emotions at work, but when they’re handling it at their desk, that’s a me problem. I absolutely don’t want to work somewhere that team lunches get derailed by crying.

      I did wonder if the work environment is toxic and stuff comes up all the time that might make a person want to cry, but both the OP and her account of Tim sound reasonable and grounded overall.

      1. beanie gee*

        I manage someone who tears up frequently in our 1-on-1 ones when we talk about workloads and things that are stressing them out, and they’ve given me direction to just keep going. But if this was happening frequently outside of 1-on-1s it would be a whole other conversation.

        1. gsa*

          What makes crying the in 1 – on- 1s more or less OK that every other day interactions???

          1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

            I’m not beanie gee, but one significant difference is that it’s OK for a person’s one-on-ones to focus on that person. There aren’t other people in the meeting who also need to get the information, or ask questions, or provide updates on their current projects. just the manager and the person who they’re meeting with.

            That focus on one person also makes it harder for the person in question to hide their emotions. If you, Tangerina, Fergus, and I were all in a meeting, I might be able to suppress or get past my reaction while you were answering Fergus’s question, or asking Tangerina something. For a question addressed to the group, like “what’s wrong with the new polka dot glaze ?” it wouldn’t be obvious that I wasn’t jumping in to answer first. If nobody else jumped in, I wouldn’t stand out, and if someone else spoke up quickly that would give me a minute to compose myself.

          2. Ultra Anon*

            I’ve cried out of frustrations in a few 1:1’s. I don’t love it and I’m sure it’s distressing for my boss, but sometimes I just can’t keep a lid on it. The thing is, I don’t do it constantly and if I started to, I would probably talk about it with my therapist so that I could get it under control.

            1. NotBatman*

              I think it’s also a matter of comfort. If I have a longstanding and friendly relationship with my boss, then there’s not only more information for my boss to know I’m probably fine while crying, but there’s also more room for my boss to say that we need to pause a meeting until the emotional tone changes.

          3. amoeba*

            There’s also a difference whether somebody tends to tear up a little during discussions about genuinely stressful/emotional topics (which it sounds like to me here!) or randomly for no discernible reason!
            (Also, if I happened to tear up during a lunch/larger meeting, I’d try to hide it – excuse myself, go to the bathroom, pretend to blow my nose, sit quietly and not contribute until I’ve got myself together. In a one-on-one, that’s naturally much harder to do.)

        2. Alexander Graham Yell*

          Yep, I definitely have times in mine when I’ve gotten teary and asked my boss to do the same. In the meantime, I worked on ways to trigger different physical responses to overwhelm the crying (it turns out pinching the skin between my thumb and forefinger works REALLY well – not hard enough to hurt, but firmly enough to make it my body’s focus), and we discovered that a change in venue makes it a lot easier. So when I’d start to tear up, we’d move our conversation to the coffee shop downstairs and we could have a completely normal conversation, sans tears. It’s nice to have a boss who will let me push through when we don’t have other options, but knowing my triggers and how to manage them makes a big difference, too.

      2. Cobol*

        I worked with somebody who cried all the time when she was the center of attention (even just people looking at her). Not waterworks, but definitely tears. It didn’t happen when she was presenting. It was just something she did, but was absolutely amazing. Our clients were the most techy of the techy for a company with a trillion dollar tech company, and she worked directly with their clients. It was absolutely never an issue. She was 25 at the time, and I don’t know if she got parts it, but it has no bearing on her being amazing.

    3. Starbuck*

      Well, partly his approach was bad (” Tim scheduled a meeting with me to discuss Vanessa. First he asked me if she had a specific diagnosis or any ADA accommodations”) that is not a question you should be asking about a coworker, it should be more open ended and definitely not asking about a diagnosis! But asking for context on a very strange behavior that is bizarrely normalized was fine. Something more like, “I’ve noticed this behavior and it’s uncomfortable/concerning, what’s up with that, can you give me more context on how to deal with it” would have been better.

      1. sagc*

        That is… exactly the sort of questions managers should ask before making sensitive corrections to an employee!

      2. L-squared*

        Disagree. It seems he is her manager now (I don’t really understand the exact situation, but it sounds like Tim and OP are co-managers). This question is something management and HR should know before going further to deal with the issue.

      3. VRC*

        Specific diagnosis? No. But yes your manager should be aware of reasonable accommodations that may be needed. I don’t think he was out of line to ask but maybe misspoke about the diagnosis part.

      4. Lana Kane*

        I didn’t read it ass wanting to know what it was, but has she been officially diagnosed with a condition and requested accomodation because of it. I think it’s good that Tim started there.

      5. Trillian (the original)*

        If they’re supposed to be operating at the same level, I’d be slightly wary of Tim until he had established himself as helping to solve the problem rather than setting himself up as the saviour of this dysfunctional team.

      6. Just another anon*

        He’s the manager, though. He does need to know if there is an ADA accommodation or he could be in big trouble for ignoring it.

  7. Salsa Verde*

    There have been other questions about crying or highly emotional/emotive employees, and I’m so glad that Alison advises that this is not ok at work. I have cried at work, I get it, but I would be very upset and disturbed if a coworker cried during meetings or at their desk even once a month, honestly. It’s very upsetting to me if others are upset, and while I understand that is my own problem, Alison’s point about accommodating one person at the expense of the mental health of the others is very welcome.
    I would make every effort to avoid Vanessa if I worked here.
    And I think Tim actually sounds like a great manager! Addressing the problem directly and even pointing out how dysfunction can become normalized can be difficult but he is not shying away from it! Go Tim!!

    1. Distracted Librarian*

      Every bit of this. I get that we all have emotions and can’t entirely shut them off at work. But people who have poor emotional control at work (frequent crying or frequent anger or something else), force those around them to perform extra emotional labor to either defuse them or try to ignore them. Being able to manage emotions appropriately at work seems like a basic expectation.

      1. Ace in the Hole*


        Crying (or other intense emotional displays) at work are understandable once in a while under exceptional circumstances. E.g. receiving tragic news, witnessing an unusually upsetting/traumatic event, going through a period of intense stress, etc. But it should be the exception. Not an everyday occurrence.

    2. Meghan*

      Yeah, agreed. Crying *can* happen at work, but it should be rare, and not common place. Life happens and we have emotions! Having someone crying at work on the regular would make me very uncomfortable.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      I’ve cried at work but over occasional, very specific things (my cousin’s dog died suddenly, for instance), not just, like . . . in meetings.

      1. NotBatman*

        Yes. Tears happen, but if they do during a meeting then that’s a time to say “sorry, just going to step out” and use a bathroom until they stop.

    4. Just another anon*

      Absolutely agree with this. I have a friend who is very emotionally stable, actually the most level-headed person I know, but she cries when she sees someone else crying. I just imagine a chain reaction of crying here. Definitely not fair to other people on their team!

  8. zinzarin*

    My money says that Tim is a reader of this blog. His language sounds very familiar.

    1. ariel*

      I love his question if I’d quibble with the phrasing – really gets to the heart of the matter.

      1. Starbuck*

        Yeah asking about a diagnosis was not the way to go but it does make sense to ask for context on a very unusual behavior in the workplace.

        1. KatEnigma*

          Remember this is LW’s version of what he asked and he might not have said that word for word.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      I wouldn’t be surprised if he weren’t, though. Good managers are everywhere and they’re good because there is a fairly narrow range of how to handle things that good managers actually do. (Whereas bad managers have a whole range of bad things to do that actually make them bad managers.)

      1. cabbagepants*

        All good managers are alike, but every bad manager is bad in its own way. (with apologies to Tolstoy)

          1. Iris Eyes*

            Definitely a great theme for a roundup of similar situations, range of terrible management solutions!

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          Dang, Tolstoy.

          The phrase does capture the sense that bad managers are looking for new and unique ways to top the bad managers who have come before them.

    3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      He could be, but also “is there some kind of ADA aspect in play here” could just be a more tactful way of saying “do you not realise how dysfunctional this is?!”

      Tim is right.

      I also feel sure Tim won’t involve you in the management process any more (in fact why was he brought in to “co-manage” the team? Do you OP think a co-manager was needed? I think senior management probably already know that something is amiss, and that OP seems unable to use management skills in addressing it) and will just take that up with the employee directly, and he would be quite right to do that too. You and Tim agreeing to table it doesn’t mean much. It just means he will handle it without bringing it to you.

      I would be very uncomfortable around her (the employee) as, I suspect, are a lot of the team members even if they seem to go along with it and accommodate her.

      However I do have to wonder if this attitude runs upwards, as the management (presumably) have now recruited Tim to help deal with this, rather than take it up with OP!

  9. Falling Diphthong*

    Apparently I have a visceral reaction to the words ‘quirky’ and ’empath.’

    Long-standing teams can be dysfunctional and not realize it because we are so used to working around it.

    Tim is certainly right about this as a general life rule, and I believe he’s also right about it in this specific case. That doesn’t mean that his tough love approach is the most effective one to rectify this–but I believe he’s right that Vanessa is your department’s missing stair.

    I agree with Alison that you’re prioritizing Vanessa’s feelings and emotional wellbeing at the cost of asking extra care and support and hoops from everyone who isn’t quirky.

    1. Minerva*

      Little to add except to say I think I had the same reaction to ‘quirky’ and ’empath.’

      Tim might be harsh but I think he is right about the dysfunction and the need to deal with it.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        The second I read “empath” my internal person rolled her eyes. The few actual empaths I’ve come in contact with tend to be very close to the vest types because they deal with so much of others’ energy.

        1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

          This. It has taken years to set up boundaries to protect myself from feeling overwhelmed by other peoples’ energy/emotion. I grew up having to adapt constantly to volatile family members and learned to ‘read the room’ very young. I still don’t call myself an empath, just someone with heightened sensitivity to how others emote ‘out loud.’

      2. Queen George*

        Agreed. I get very prickly at the idea that“quirky” is always accompanied by the suggestion of “overtly and glaringly”. Many, many fascinating and unique people are able to be fascinating and unique in without constantly drawing attention to their own fascinating uniqueness.

    2. Distracted Librarian*

      I have the same visceral reaction to both terms. In my experience they’re often euphemisms for some kind of disruptive dysfunction.

        1. Frickityfrack*

          I’m starting to doubt that they do, because literally every single person I’ve ever met who described themselves as an empath was either A) just hypersensitive to other people’s moods/reactions because of abuse or B) had poor emotional regulation in general. Oh, or the occasional third option of someone who just wants attention but only seems to be super sensitive when they know people are watching.

          1. Myrin*

            It always sounds like a magic term to me. I certainly don’t know enough about the psychology behind it to adequately assess the term but the first (and for a very long time only!) time I encountered the expression was in some kinda of wizard-y comic strip so I just can’t take it seriously IRL.

          2. Distracted Librarian*

            Or, option D: projecting (which could be a subset of option A) and/or assuming. As someone with a chronic case of Resting B*tch Face, I get so tired of having to convince other people that I’m not mad/sad/otherwise upset. Nope, just thinking. Or staring off into space.

          3. Clorinda*

            If empath means a person with a naturally high EQ, they’re real enough. If empath means Person With All The Dramatic Reactions, well, they are also real. Fortunately, the first type won’t pester you about it–they’ll go about their lives either being widely liked or profoundly and evilly manipulative. And the second type are kind enough to warn you.

          4. MEH Squared*

            Just putting this here, though it could go anywhere in this thread.

            The thing is that any term someone uses to repeatedly describe themselves is usually misapplied. Like the guy who says he’s a nice guy or the guy who calls himself a feminist or the white person who says they’re an ally in racial issues. You don’t get to assess it for yourself–only others can do it for you. It’s aspirational at best, but many people cannot discern who they are with who they like to think they are/want to be.

            In addition, reifying any one aspect of your personality to the exclusion of the other parts (or just hanging your hat on that aspect of your personality) means that you (general you) have an investment in seeing yourself that way and will not be amenable to someone disagreeing with you.

            I am empathetic to an unusual degree (though I don’t use the word empath; I don’t like it), which means I can feel other people’s feelings. I don’t bring it up because nobody wants to hear that. I have studied Taiji (tai chi) for sixteen years, and it’s enabled me to enact shields to block out other people’s feelings to some degree, but I’ll always be sensitive to other people’s feelings. Believe me when I say it’s more a curse than a blessing.

            keep it to myself because it’s my issue to deal with. Vanessa doesn’t sound like an empath, really, but just very sensitive in general. It’s difficult to regulate your emotions when you’re that kind of sensitive, but it can be done. Tearing up briefly–acceptable. Bawling at your desk or during lunches for no apparent reason–not so acceptable.

            Tim’s not wrong. I’m sure having to manage Vanessa’s emotions has become a chore for her colleagues.

          5. laser99*

            My experience has been a person who is exquisitely attuned to every shade and variation of emotion…their own. Never a thought for anyone else.

        2. hodie-hi*

          Deanna Troi is an empath.

          Some folks like to feel their feelings AT other people. Some also think the world is doing things at them. Family. *sigh*

        3. I am Emily's failing memory*

          Yeah, being an empath is not prohibitive of having emotional regulation. I routinely tear up at emotionally manipulative 15-second television commercials (see: Subaru commercials where a young couple with a puppy montage into parents giving the car keys to their teenager while their elderly dog softly wags his tail from the porch) when I’m at home, because there’s no need to regulate my emotional expression at home by myself. I very much have the capacity to rein it in when I’m at work – it’s a skill that like any other will be harder for some to learn than others, but it can be learned. Wearing every emotion you feel inside on your sleeve is not an immutable trait.

          1. Cake or Death*

            “I routinely tear up at emotionally manipulative 15-second television commercial”

            This is EXACTLY me lol.

      1. Meep*

        ^The problem is people who often call themselves “an empath” are usually using the “fact” to step on people and aren’t really empathetic in the slightest.

        Someone who is “quirky” thinks it is cute to be disruptive. Kind of like “Oh I am so clumsy!” main characters that are always tripping over their own two feet to fling themselves at their love interest.

        People need to stop basing their lives around TV tropes.

        1. Rex Libris*

          What gets me is how often they don’t see the contradiction between being an “empath” and being entirely unaware of their own emotional impact on those around them… It’s almost like it’s selfish, attention seeking behavior and not empathy at all.

        2. LB33*

          It doesn’t sound like that’s what Vanessa is doing though – from the description she has serious problems if she’s crying this frequently at the office, not trying to be cute and quirky

    3. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      I have the same reaction to the word empath too. But that’s because all the self proclaimed empaths I know not only tell/show you how upset they are but there is almost an air of superiority that comes with it. Almost a bit of subtle shaming if you don’t care as much as they do but “It’s ok sweetie, I’m just an empath! I just care sooooooo much”

      Not suggesting Vanessa is like this but every time I hear someone use that word to describe themselves, I cringe.

      1. Zap R.*

        It’s like when people use “introvert” to mean “smarter and more civilized than you chatty peasants.”

        1. Relentlessly Socratic*

          Apropos of nothing, but please tell me your ‘R’ stands for ‘Rowsdower’

        2. MeetMoot*

          Yessss this irks me endlessly. It feels like the two options are always presented as ‘Quiet, pensive, intellectual, cultured introvert’ or ‘Loud, abrasive, attention-seeking, partying extrovert’. Spare me.

          1. NotBatman*

            It’s all the fault of Susan Cain. Her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” is unscientific, unresearched, and low-key sexist and racist in places. However, it’s also spectacularly well-written. So it’s largely responsible for the idea of introverts as superior beings (and “introvert” as a category, which is also unscientific) entering the popular lexicon.

        3. Jill Swinburne*

          Reminds me of the recent letter about younger workers refusing to do public speaking because they were introverts, or something. Not everything that makes you a bit uncomfortable must be accommodated.

      2. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

        I love peeking at the empath subreddit. there are literally posts like, “I feel uncomfortable around my boss, who says he dislikes me. does that make me an empath?”

    4. Salsa Verde*

      And it’s not clear to me that Tim is describing his approach as tough love, only that the OP has characterized it that way. It sounds to me like Tim is going to clearly describe the issue, give examples of what he would like to see and a timeline in which he’d like to see it. The only reference to tough love I’m seeing is how OP describes it. I’m wondering if that’s how Tim would characterize it.

      1. Kit*

        Said this below, but yes – I would not be surprised at all if the average AaM reader (or Alison herself) would describe Tim’s proposed approach as “matter-of-fact.” If you know Vanessa is going to cry regardless, at a certain point all the softening language in the world will not help and being straightforward without being cruel is kinder than dancing around the point and hoping she receives the message.

        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          Yeah, at that point tone and method of approach are going to be a lot more effective than softening language. I know when I’m having a lot of Big Feelings I really benefit from taking emotional cues from coworkers or friends who are exuding Levelheadedness (to be clear, I’m not bursting into tears at meetings, but being able to take a minute and just listen to someone who is being professional is a helpful thing). Having someone have Feelings back at me is usually a good cue for me to have a good old-fashioned crying jag, which can be good if I’m at home and comisserating with a friend but really bad in the office.

    5. sookie st james*

      Big agree re: ’empath’… I question the judgement of someone who frames their disruptive/unsettling behaviour as a positive personality trait, rather than acknowledging it as a problem.

      The actual definition of empath is “a person with the paranormal ability to perceive the mental or emotional states of others around them” – even ignoring the ‘paranormal’ part, the fact remains that she’s suggesting she’s so sensitive and receptive to the feelings of others around her that she can’t control her emotional outbursts. But nothing in the letter indicates that this is actually the case (except maybe the bird thing) but rather that the crying spells occur in response to feedback or personally struggling with change – nothing to do with being empathetic to others.

      The irony being, of course, that her behaviour is likely causing other people distress and she’s not noticing because she’s so wrapped up in her own emotions. (And has been given carte blanche to express them).

      Look, I cry a LOT – so I’m not unsympathetic (some of us just react tearfully to any strong emotion we feel!) through crying. But professionalism demands you learn how to manage your emotions privately. Your colleagues should not have to take on the emotional burden of managing your feelings for you.

      OP – I would imagine the prospect of finally accepting that this is a problem is overwhelming and unpleasant because Vanessa has proven herself unable to take feedback calmly. You know deep down these conversations are not going to go well. Which is proof in itself why it has to be dealt with.

      1. GreenDoor*

        Thank you sookie st. james for providing the definition of an empath. I am more of a matter-of-fact kind of person and it irritates me to no end when people say “I’m an empath” when they really mean “I can’t manage my own emotions and I cry at the drop of a hat.” OP, you really need to collaborate with Tim on a solution here. Alison is spot on when she theorizes that you likely have staff members who do NOT appreciate having to constantly work around Vanessa’s feelings. I know I’d be silently seething. A point you might want to raise with Vanessa is that she’s likely sabotaging herself. I mean, the same people who jump up to clear away the dead bird and fetch her kleenex may also be thinking “she’s weak…she can’t be relied on…she can’t handle the harder work…thank goodness that crybaby isn’t on my team…”

        1. sookie st james*

          Agreed – even if I wasn’t actively angry about it, I know it would be very emotionally draining, even if you had a good relationship with the person and sympathised with them. The workplace just shouldn’t demand this kind of emotional labour from people.

        2. Ultra Anon*

          Or “ I’m an empath so I’m going to turn everything conversation we have about me and you’ll end up managing my feelings about how you’ve had a bad day.” It’s hard to be friends because you’re constantly giving and end up feeling like you’re getting cheated out of a real friendship.

      2. Cheezmouser*


        I’m married to an actual empath, and while I’m sure every empath is different, I don’t recognize any empathic traits from OP’s description of Vanessa. There are no descriptions of Vanessa perceiving or reacting to the emotional states of people around her, but rather of Vanessa reacting with strong emotion to just about everything, or nothing, or things that happen to her. I would recommend that Vanessa get a formal evaluation or diagnosis, since there may be other things besides high empathy going on.

      3. anxiousGrad*

        Yeah at some point you need to learn how to manage your emotions. When I was in preschool I always cried literally anytime I saw another kid cry, even if I didn’t like that kid or know what they were crying about (which in retrospect must have been really annoying for the teachers). A lot of times adults would comment on how sweet I was to care so much about the other kids and I would always think, “but I don’t actually care, I don’t know why I’m crying!” In any event, I learned to stop doing this by the time I was like 7. It’s high time Vanessa learned, too!

      4. STAT!*

        Thanks for the definition sookie! The “I’m psychic” claim inherently made by many “empaths” is one of the reasons I doubt this is a real thing.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      Nope, right there with you.

      I feel like people want “empath” to be an excuse to demand emotional management the way they use “autism spectrum” to explain jerkwad behavior. It doesn’t exempt the person from learning to manage their own behavior!

      (I’m on the spectrum, for the record.)

      1. Morning Flowers*

        Amen. Also on the spectrum — you still gotta manage yourself, and it makes tactful but firm intervention when you aren’t MORE important, not less.

    7. the cat ears*

      I sympathize a lot with Vanessa, because I have felt like this in the past. I have been the person who gets emotional easily.

      I also severely limited myself socially and professionally by doing that. It took therapy, getting on the right antidepressants, and treating some other underlying health issues to be able to regulate my emotions better. But it wasn’t other people’s responisiblity to walk on eggshells around me until I did that.

      1. Observer*

        You make a really good point here.

        OP, if you REALLY want to help Vanessa, please find out what resources your company has for mental and physical health. Because Vanessa doesn’t sound like an empath, but like someone with very poor emotional regulation. If you are right that she’s also a genuinely nice person, she probably has some issues that one would hope to address. What those issues might be are not really your business. But what is your business is to point her to whatever resources available (not to tell her which ones to use, just to let her know that those choices exist) and to provide whatever accommodations that you can that she would find helpful.

        1. elle *sparkle emoji**

          I agree there could be something going on that isn’t “Vanessa is an empath”. If hypothetically it ended up needing accommodations though I’d want to point out to OP that the current approach isn’t an appropriate accommodation for this type of thing. I was a little bit of a Vanessa when I was in Jr high and high school and had disability accommodations. To deal with my emotional moments, I literally had an accommodation to leave the room at any time for a few minutes. This allowed me to deal with things, but also meant I was the one dealing with my emotions, other people weren’t being forced to deal with them too.

    8. Serious Silly Putty*

      I find “quirky” useful because it’s not my place to label people as neurodivergent… but I DO think neurodivergence is something worth mindfully accommodating.
      Where I tend to go is, “if this person disclosed a neurodivergence to me and asked for ADA accommodation, would I give it? And if so, then why make them disclose at all, if we can brainstorm an accommodation without it?
      But I think the overall point about balancing EVERYONE’s emotional needs still stands. So maybe the accommodation is that her desk is an acceptable place to cry, and she has permission to excuse herself from meetings when needed. And they should disclose V’s trait to the new staff, so that they are not alarmed by her crying at her desk.

      Also, on the flip side, I want to acknowledge that neurodivergent people sometimes get frustrated when that’s used as an excuse for poor behavior. Ex: autistic women are conditioned to figure out how to not rock the boat in group settings (at great mental expense, sometimes) so it’s grating when someone dismisses a male’s rude/mansplaining behavior as “oh he’s just autistic he can’t help it.” My point is just that “quirky” can be a useful term.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I’ve seen many an internet comment section where people with condition X are very frustrated that someone is waving off bad behavior as “That person has condition X, and everyone with condition X is thoughtless and hurtful in that exact way.” Many people with condition X are not thoughtless or hurtful in that way!

        For example, people with both self-diagnosed depression and self-diagnosed ADHD who believed the condition fully explained their uncontrollable rage meltdowns, which their loved ones needed to better accommodate and stop being upset by.

      2. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

        I think your approach to disclosures/accommodation is great! I am going to adopt it – it articulates something I’ve been trying to think through but not quite getting there. Thank you!

    9. Observer*

      That doesn’t mean that his tough love approach is the most effective one to rectify this–but I believe he’s right that Vanessa is your department’s missing stair.

      This is the thing. The OP may be correct about the best way to approach it, but right now they are not a good judge because right now they don’t even recognize the problem. They think that “everyone” is OK with this, which is a highly questionable assumption based on what they say; they seem to see Tim and the new team as interlopers who are trying to make unwarranted changes; and the clearly don’t understand that Vanessa’s behavior AS THEY DESCRIBE it goes well beyond “quirky”.

    10. RagingADHD*

      In about a half-century on this earth and a very wide acquaintance of people in all walks of life (including performers who emote for a living, social workers, and mental-health professionals for whom empathy is a core feature of their personality) I have never, ever, ever encountered anyone who exercised real empathy describe themselves as an “empath.” Nor have I encountered a single self-proclaimed “empath” who was actually tuned into or even mildly interested in anyone else’s emotions. Never. And I’ve met quite a number of them.

      Most of the self-proclaimed “empaths” I’ve known could do a halfway decent “cold read” of people’s facial expressions, as any adult with typical social skills could do. A few were on par with your average fake psychic/mentalist.

      But every single one of them was far more interested in projecting their own emotions onto other people, than in making time for, hearing about, helping with, or even respecting anyone else’s emotional struggles.

      In every instance, the word “empath” translated in practice to “untreated/undertreated disorder + poor personal boundaries.”

      1. Cheezmouser*

        Agree that most people use “empath” incorrectly. My husband is an actual empath and I’ve watched him for 20+ years. You are 100% correct:

        1) he never calls himself an empath and never tells anyone about his empathy. (Why would he?)

        2) he can do cold reads of people beyond regular social cues. It’s interesting to get the lowdown from him when he goes to large industry events and doesn’t know everyone, because he can tell who is genuine, who is trying to suck up, who is nervous but hiding it well, who hates/fears who, etc.

        3) Once he actually gets to know someone, he can sometimes read pretty deeply into them, to the point of understanding the parts of them that they don’t want to admit even to themselves. I’ve told him that it’s a good thing he’s a nice person, or else he could really hurt people by making them face ugly truths about themselves that they don’t want to face.

        4) he never projects his emotions onto others. Empathy is about perceiving/absorbing other people’s emotions, not vomiting yours onto other people. In fact, he is one of the most emotionally stable people I know, simply because he must manage other people’s emotions on top of his own. If he didn’t have strong emotional management skills and the ability to understand and separate his emotions from others’, he’d be a total mess. This is probably why he is also extremely chill, laidback, and not easily ruffled. If he actually reacted to everything he felt, he’d be totally exhausted by noon.

        5) others would sense his empathy and come up to him, instead of him trying to attract others’ attention. When he worked in retail, people would go from asking him how to find an item on the shelf to confiding in him about their worries about their son who was caught smoking weed, their spouse has been acting distant, etc. All he was trying to do was help them find a CD!

        tl;dr, yeah those people you met who claimed to be empaths were probably not actual empaths. Or if they were, then their empathy was out of control and not being managed well.

        1. Lydia*

          You just described the skillset for what cold read psychics do. Your husband has a whole side gig he can get into!

          1. Cheezmouser*

            For real. I sometimes think that he could probably make a ton of money by charging celebrities for telling them who are their genuine friends vs. who’s just there for the money and fame. It’s super easy for him to spot genuine vs fake motivation. I’ve seen him point out the fakers in a room without even talking to them. I’m sure some celebrities would probably be interested to know which friends are real, but alas, he just uses his empathy to navigate his coworkers’ emotional currents and wrangle me and the kids.

            1. Chelsea*

              Bonus, once he tells someone their friend is a fake and they actually listen to a complete stranger and cut them off, their friend isn’t going to stick around to tell them they were wrong! It’s a guaranteed 100% success rate.

        2. RagingADHD*

          I would be fascinated to know how he has verified his “reads” of complete strangers at a conference, and how many people he decided were nervous or hated someone just had a migrane, or a bad nights’ sleep, or were hungry.

          Most people call this people-watching. It’s a great creative writing exercise.

          1. rusty*

            This, definitely. I have quite strong empathy and my gut feeling about people is accurate more often than my husband’s is – based on a handful of people over the years who’ve given me the heeby jeebies but not him, and who we later wished we had never had to deal with. BUT I also project like whoa sometimes. And unless events play out in such a way as to prove or disprove my gut, I’ll never actually know if I was right or just making shit up.

      2. Yoyoyo*

        Yes, yes, YES. I am a licensed social worker practicing therapy, which requires a high degree of empathy in order to be effective. I frequently have clients tell me I must be psychic. I am not psychic and I am not an “empath.” I grew up in an abusive environment in which I developed a knack for reading people as a survival skill and was expected to have zero boundaries, emotional or otherwise. In my adulthood and particularly my career I needed to develop solid skills for maintaining emotional boundaries. In my personal life, when I let those boundaries down, yes, I cry at the drop of a hat. But it is my responsibility to manage that at work so as to be effective for my clients and my colleagues.

        1. Artemesia*

          Empath is a scifi thing — there is no such thing. Yes some people are VERY astute at reading social signals and emotions. But I agree that those who call themselves ’empaths’ much like those who claim to be very sensitive, are mostly sensitive about any slights to themselves and not truly empathetic to others.

        2. New Jack Karyn*

          I want to expand on what you wrote about growing up in an abusive environment.

          In my unlettered opinion, many of the people who are using the term ’empath’ to mean ‘I don’t have control of my own emotions’ ARE also good at reading others’ emotions–because of growing up in abusive environments. Both are (or can be) responses to childhood trauma, and can co-occur.

          But that doesn’t make it easier for the folks who have to deal with others’ emotional dysregulation at work.

      3. SweetFancyPancakes*

        Yes, this! I was trying to come up with a comment earlier but couldn’t word it as well as you did. The closest thing I have ever met to a true “empath” is my sister, who has always been extremely sensitive to the feelings of everyone around her- but she never turns the attention back on herself, but uses her skills to help others navigate their own situations. She is a clinical social worker and currently works with kids, some of whom have gone through nightmare situations. If she was the kind of empath that so many of the self-proclaimed ones are, there is no way she could be effective in her work.

        1. UKDancer*

          I think a lot of social workers develop really good abilities to read people and work out what they’re feeling quickly. It goes with the job. My company employs a couple of ex police and they have a similar ability but more around noticing anything different or changed because the job has led them to develop really strong reflexes and an understanding of what’s going on. So I can believe that people can have or develop an above average ability to read people, especially if their job requires it.

    11. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yeah, “quirky” should be used for something along the lines of your coworker who microwaves her salad every day because she likes hot lettuce. Oh, that quirky Roberta and her hot salads!

      Instead it becomes a euphemism for someone whose behavior is beyond the pale, but for whatever reason it can’t or won’t be addressed, so instead it’s treated as if it’s nothing more than a preference for hot lettuce. (Or, if the person has money, they’re “eccentric.”)

      1. Allonge*

        Also, quirky is often used to indicate that the person cannot in any way handle any change to what they are doing. Roberta naturally falls apart and is Not True to Herself TM if she cannot microwave the salad one day because there is a citywide power outage, instead of being mildly frustrated but happy this is the worst that happened to her that day.

    12. RussianInTexas*

      I do too.
      Just reading the description of Vanessa made me angry and anxious. I can’t imaging working with her.
      There is “quirky” and then there is “walking on eggshells lest we upset her”.

  10. Artemesia*

    I was really afraid Alison was going to react that this had to be accommodated and glad to see she didn’t. This is classic missing stair behavior. No team should have to put up with this regularly. An occasionally bought of tears — and letting the person leave and pull themselves together — is part of working with people. Having someone hold the whole group hostage to their drama, is not. She needs to grow up and manage her emotions in the workplace and accommodation should involve letting her seek out privacy to get a grip, not letting her make every meeting revolve around her emotional state.

    1. Distracted Librarian*

      Exactly. And even the “seeking privacy” part shouldn’t be overused. If she has to remove herself from every meeting or team lunch to deal with her emotions, that’s also a problem.

      1. Modesty Poncho*

        So genuinely, what’s the answer? Should she not be employable because she cries sometimes? If she’s at or gets to a place where she’s quietly crying, not loudly sobbing, and it’s not acceptable to cry in front of other people, and not to cry at her desk, and not to cry in the bathroom because it’s too often….what? Enforced work from home? Fired?

        1. Yoyoyo*

          Yes, at some point, if she is unable to get it under control she may need to be let go as it is disruptive to the business. It’s not a reasonable accommodation to have to leave every meeting. She needs to figure out a way to manage this, whether it is through accessing an EAP, other mental health resources, etc. If she’s not able to do that then she might have to go.

        2. Storm in a teacup*

          That’s a little dramatic no? Surely the first port of call is to name the problem (which Tim has done) and work with the employee to understand why it’s an issue (impact on the wider team who should not be held hostage to their disruptive behaviour). Then work with them and coach them to address the issue and develop their soft skills. If you reach a point where employee is no longer suitable for the job and need to be managed out, it’s not a kindness to keep them on due to impact on the team.

          Also there are i’m sure plenty of jobs out there where constant crying wouldn’t matter at all w.g. Remote worker from home, onion chopper…

        3. goddessoftransitory*

          I think this situation is somewhat on par with the letter from the person whose spiraling anxiety because a coworker hadn’t said “good night” to her ended in her driving to that person’s house and demanding/pleading for an “explanation.” She was lucky she wasn’t arrested, and ended up being fired.

          The thing is, that employee understood she had anxiety, that it wasn’t being managed well, that she had spiraled, etc., but she still couldn’t get it under control and made it her co-worker’s problem, to the point that that co-worker rightly felt they couldn’t continue working with her. Her employers were correct in saying we get you have X problem but we cannot allow it to become everyone at work’s problem to work around.

          Vanessa may not be as dramatic on that front, but she has successfully created an environment where everyone is managing FOR her, instead of her managing her own issues. Tim’s reaction is frankly the first breath of fresh air their team had probably received about this issue in years.

        4. Critical Rolls*

          This is not a “sometimes” thing, it is clearly a very regular thing. Can you agree that it’s a problem that she would apparently have to excuse herself from any slightly stressful meeting? From *team lunches* for Pete’s sake?

        5. metadata minion*

          There is a very strong chance that she can get her crying under control with proper mental health care (or physical health care — it’s not impossible that this is a hormone imbalance or something). That’s not always easy or cheap for someone to access, and so I would want to give her as much leeway as possible while she figures out a treatment plan, but the solution can’t be “this person is extremely disruptive and is going to keep being disruptive forever”.

    2. Mr. Shark*

      I’m with you there. Alison is usually more accommodating than I would be. :) So I wondered the same thing, and I was pleasantly surprised that she recognized that it was unreasonable to have to deal with this on such a regular basis. I can see occasionally, but we all have to be professional and change our behavior at work, regardless of how we would normally act and react outside of work.

  11. Allornone*

    As someone who used to only wear waterproof mascara because there’d be a reasonable chance I’d cry on any given day (or, um, every day at least once), I feel for Vanessa as well. But Alison’s right; that level of emotion is just not appropriate or productive in the workplace. I had to learn to reign myself in. It wasn’t easy- and there are still times I want to break down (I’ve had a very rough of couple of years), but I hold it together at work, because that’s just what I need to do to maintain a sense of dignity and professionalism. I will say I was mildly proud of myself the first time I bought regular, non-waterproof mascara.

    1. EBStarr*

      This is so heartwarming and amusing at the same time. I love the idea that buying regular mascara can be a symbol of a hard-won triumph. You should definitely be proud!

    2. sookie st james*

      Congrats on the mascara!

      I’m also A Crier but I have never let myself have an emotional outburst at work – I’ve felt choked up and has to silently try to compose myself, or felt an anxiety attack coming on and excused myself in advance, but I can’t even imagine feeling comfortable bursting into tears in front of colleagues. Excluding when I worked in hospitality – the crying doesn’t count when the customers are always trying to make you cry.

    3. Daisy-dog*

      I also cry a lot. It can be silly reasons like I will randomly have a sweet/sad memory that makes me tear up. Or I’m listening to a podcast that takes an emotional turn. Hearing really good news like someone’s promotion can also trigger tears. I have ways to control this. (If I thought I was alone and wasn’t, I pretend I almost sneezed and it passed.) Anything beyond just a couple tears does mean that I find privacy first, but that hasn’t happened in the last few years.

  12. DrSalty*

    I am wondering what type of crying Vanessa is doing. Is it like, “mostly silent dabbing her eyes trying not to make a fuss” crying? Or is it like, “audibly weeping” crying? All of the above? Somewhere in between?

    I’m wondering since she asked you all to just ignore it, and I know how uncomfortable that would make me as her coworker would depend on the type of crying we’re talking about. The former is easy to deal with, the latter not so much.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      I wonder about this too, and maybe the OP can comment with more info. I started off the letter picturing Vanessa’s crying on the “sometimes tears leak out of my eyes but I’ll dab them away and you should all ignore them” side of the spectrum, but Tim being distracted by her crying and her coworkers trying to head off the crying in the bird situation had me leaning more toward “audibly weeping” by the end of the letter. Like you, I would pretty easily be able to ignore silent tears and would be very distracted by audible weeping.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I’d still agree with silent tears that actually run down her face that she should leave the room

        1. Double A*

          I think someone who has a physiological reaction to certain stimuli that makes their eyes leak… that could be something a team reasonably ignores. I’m thinking of when I was pregnant, pretty much all music made me cry. Was anything the matter? No! Not at all! I promise I am not invested in this insurance commercial, it just has swelling strings that make my eyes leak! If I had been in a work setting where music played frequently, I would have missed a lot if I had to leave every time my eyes leaked (fortunately I wasn’t).

          If someone is a known quantity of eye leakage and can kind of laugh it off and be discrete about wiping and step out if it goes beyond some tearing up… that seems like it could a quirk a team could accommodate. But the team isn’t just ignoring the tears, they are *managing* them and it sounds like Vanessa expects this. That’s a big problem.

          1. allathian*

            Oof, I teared up at the drop of a hat when I was pregnant, and I just put it down to hormones. I had to quit watching the news because any news involving children would have me bawling uncontrollably. When I was pregnant, pretty much every emotion I felt would make me cry. I’m very glad I had my own office at the time. Now I share with someone else, but we sit back to back with a cubicle wall between us, so I could get away with silent tears… That said, I’m mostly remote, so I could be weeping all day and nobody would be the wiser, unless I’m in a meeting with cameras on.

      2. I am Emily's failing memory*

        Or even if it’s not audible, there’s also a difference between “Vanessa is silently shedding a few tears while being visibly engaged with the meeting (eye contact, participation where expected),” and “Vanessa is giving the floor a 1,000-yard stare with her face scrunched up in an expression of despair while others awkwardly try to have a business discussion.”

        If it was really just silent weeping, but she was dabbing her eyes with a tissue so that she didn’t have tears running down her face, and she was still nodding along with the presenter, and asking/answering questions as needed, it might still be jarring to someone new. But it’ll be far less off-putting if they learn that the team is just politely ignoring someone’s unintended crying the way they’d politely ignore someone’s unintended fart, in a “can’t always control biology!” way, than to be blindsided in a meeting by someone having A Very Emotional Reaction that includes but isn’t limited to tears, and then to see everyone else in the meeting awkwardly try to carry on like it isn’t happening/without addressing it.

    2. Bibliothecarial*

      I wondered that too. I remember someone on here looking for scripts to tell her colleagues to ignore her leaky eyes. Audible or visible sobbing is unprofessional, but leaky eyes are fine at my workplace. (Ever since I turned 20, my eyes have been very leaky and none of my colleagues care.)

      Also, you can lay out expectations clearly with someone leaky-eyed as long as your tone and demeanor is compassionate!

      1. DrSalty*

        Yes, that letter is exactly what I was thinking of. But from Tim’s reaction it sounds like maybe that is not the situation here, there is something more going on.

    3. K8T*

      Both kinds would make me deeply uncomfortable. And as someone who’s cried at work a couple times (horrible job clearly, frustration tears are a real thing) – I’ve never done so in front of someone. You simply have to excuse yourself when you feel it coming and go somewhere others aren’t

    4. Daisy*

      Yes, this is what I was wondering also.
      Getting teary and quietly wiping away, preventing others from seeing and becoming distressed? Fine by me, although I do think some therapy around regulating her emotions/distancing her emotions from work performance may be helpful.
      Audible weeping and “performance crying” which can derail a meeting or change the behavior of others is something else altogether. Having two coworkers jump into action to delay her and remove a dead bird, instead of just directing her to sit with her back to the window before she sees is a bit over the top IMO.

    5. Samwise*

      Doesn’t matter. Silent dabbing your eyes at every meeting and team lunch? Yeah, no. It’s just as disturbing. Someone is sitting there suffering…quietly…bravely dabbing their eyes…trying so hard not to make a fuss — but it IS a fuss.

      I’d be distressed at anyone emoting like that, I personally might ask them to come on out in the hall and let’s talk depending on our relationship (I have done this with coworkers in the past). And if it happened all the time, day after day, year after year? I’d be *mad* — it’s disruptive and distressing and frankly forces everyone to notice and pretend not to notice.

      1. Modesty Poncho*

        “Someone is sitting there suffering…quietly…bravely dabbing their eyes…trying so hard not to make a fuss — but it IS a fuss.”

        This is you projecting. If I’m sitting quietly, crying but otherwise calm (no big loud sniffs, no sobs, watching what’s going on), I AM TRYING TO BE IGNORED. I do not want attention. Attention and fuss will make it worse. It is not manipulative, it is not under my control. If you can’t put your own emotions aside and believe her when she says it’s nothing, that’s not her fault.

        1. Storm in a teacup*

          So if you worked with someone who always cried and was upset and told you to ignore it whilst they sat quietly dabbing their eyes, could you ignore it? Would there be zero emotional toll on you to do so?
          Modesty I guess you relate / empathise with Vanessa (no pun intended) but the reality is, most people are kind. Most people want their colleagues to be ok. Seeing someone crying generally means they’re not ok and that’s not as easy to ignore as you seem to imagine.

          1. ItIsWhatItIs*

            I would also have a very hard time ignoring someone silently crying every single day as well.

        2. vegan*

          The appropriate and fair thing to do is to excuse yourself, leave the room, go off by yourself, and return once you have calmed yourself. Basic manners. Not complicated.

        3. takeachip*

          I think the commenter you replied to was talking about the impact of the behavior, not the intent. It may seem like “nothing” to the person crying but it’s unusual and uncomfortable to other people in a work context, and no amount of “don’t mind me” signals will change that. It’s like asking people to ignore a parrot on your shoulder. Even if the parrot stays as quiet as possible and doesn’t flap or hop around, it’s still a parrot and its very presence is distracting.

        4. Samwise*

          OK, I agree, I amped it up.

          But truly, if someone is quietly crying at meetings and team lunches and at their desk on the regular — not just once in awhile but every day? For **years**? It’s disturbing and distressing to have to see and hear, it’s *work* to just ignore it. And clearly OP’s staff isn’t really just ignoring it, they’re trying to prevent it.

          It’s too much. It’s inappropriate.

          Here’s the thing — it may not be in Vanessa’s control. That doesn’t make it appropriate behavior. That does not mean that everyone else ought to adjust to it.

        5. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

          I feel like I have seen both the kind of crying Samwise is talking about, and the kind Modesty is talking about, and they’re *different* – you probably couldn’t put the difference into words, because it’s about the dynamic and the vibe in the room, but you know it when you see it.

          Modesty, do you think your coworkers would say that your crying “mostly” wasn’t a problem to them because “they’d adapted” (while also taking action to try and avoid any situation arising where you might cry)? Or do you think they’d say something more like “… hmm, I guess she does leak from the eyes, now you mention it? We don’t really take notice of it any more than Leslie’s hay fever”?

          1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

            Hey, Modesty, I hadn’t read to the end of the thread and you provide a lot more context, so ignore my questions here! FWIW I used to have a slide at the start of my lectures warning that I would cry (I’m an English professor and I CANNOT read sad passages aloud without crying, and I taught a lot of sad books!) – different situation but a bit of overlap. I hope you find a good place to work.

  13. ThatGirl*

    I’m gonna say something potentially controversial: I don’t think being an empath is a real thing. I think most people who call themselves empaths actually have anxiety, serious boundary issues, or a history of abuse that makes them very sensitive to other people’s feelings.

    Now, I’m not trying to diagnose Vanessa here. And as someone who occasionally tears up herself at inopportune moments due to frustration or an excess of emotions, I get that sometimes people can be sensitive without being wildly unprofessional. But if she cries that often, it definitely seems like she needs a push to deal with this herself and not count on others to coddle or ignore her.

    1. They Called Me Skeletor.....*

      being an empath isn’t about someone being sensitive. most empaths will feel the emotions of every single person in a room when they walk in if they don’t have a good enough coping mechanism in place. it goes well beyond the normal feeling of empathy. most empaths deal with social anxiety disorder because it’s very difficult to be in public and to feel all of that pummeling you every minute that you’re outside of your house.

      1. Dr. Rebecca*

        Sorry, I have to agree with ThatGirl–the type of empathy you’re talking about doesn’t exist. This isn’t ST:TNG. If someone thinks they feel my emotions when they’re near me, they’re either accurately reading my expression or something else in my body language, or they’re wrong.

        1. DocVonMitte*

          This. As someone who is neurodivergent, I’ve never had an “empath” read my emotions correctly.

          1. ADidgeridooForYou*

            I feel this so hard haha. A lot of times my face/body language don’t reflect what I’m actually feeling – I often seem upset when in fact I’m not. There have definitely been a number of “empaths” who say they can sense I’m sad when I’m just chilling.

          2. hatorade*

            I remember waiting for the train and a complete stranger walked up to me and said “I’m an empath, so I can totally feel the ~vibes~ you’re putting out. Hard week huh?” She also acted like this was a huge inconvenience for HER.

            It was 5pm on a Friday, so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that the average human taking public transit at a peak travel time at the end of the week would be a bit tired/stressed.

            No self proclaimed empath has actually had any empathy when it came to someone else’s situation, they just made it about themselves.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              There was the shop that received a 1-star online review from an empath who allowed that the goods and service were great BUT the terrible black clouds of energy coming from the sales clerk’s spirit were overwhelming to a delicate empath.

              The shop copied the review, put it on a sign out front, and sold T-shirts.

              1. Martin Blackwood*

                Im the opposite of an empath, but ive had that “oh weird vibes coming from the barista in this artsy hole in the wall coffee shop” moment. Doesnt take exceptional skill to pick up on that
                (I didnt write a bad review. My barista assigned chai tea latte was very good)

              2. UKDancer*

                Sounds like the colleague who said I had a distressing aura and the colours made it hard for her to focus. I had no clue what to do about it. I don’t believe auras exist and if they do I can’t help the colour of mine. I thought we got on fine so I was somewhat stumped.

            2. Irish Teacher*

              I once had the most bizarre conversation online where I was having a conversation about books with somebody and mildly disagreed with them…I wasn’t even arguing, just “yeah, I suppose that could be the case sometimes, but I don’t think it’s always true” and they responded with “well, I’m going to end this conversation because I can feel that you are really tense and I don’t want to absorb that emotion.” Um….I thought we were having a fun conversation here.

              The person didn’t specifically describe themselves as an “empath” but…that seemed to be the sort of vibe they were giving.

        2. Richard Hershberger*

          I was going to go with the ST:TNG reference too. When someone tells me they are an empath, I think they are imagining themselves as a Federation counselor. Except for that guy in college, this being before TNG came out. He was odd mostly in how unempathic he was. He wasn’t a jerk about it. He just seemed to entirely miscalculate what was normal, perhaps due to his lack of empathy, and imagined that what little empathy leaked through was remarkable.

        3. Peanut Hamper*

          Troi was actually like that in the pilot episode of ST:TNG and it was annoying AF. I’m glad they toned it down afterward.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            In fairness, most of the first two seasons were annoying AF. Even the episodes that didn’t feature Wesley Crusher.

            1. Relentlessly Socratic*

              I’ve renamed that episode of TOS as “The poor woman who was gaslit into being a martyr”, but it’s not as pithy…

        4. Roland*

          I love all the comments on this letter that are like “she doesn’t sound like an empath at all! I would know because I really AM an empath, unlike her, the faker”.

          1. Queen George*

            Whenever someone tells me an empath story, I always wonder “But how do you know that you were correct in your perceptions? Are you sure you aren’t just going to parties and turning everyone into a character in a short film in your head?”

            1. AnnieB*

              I think this! people used to always confidently report to me what were the hidden dynamics between people, the secret background etc, and I always wondered how they could TELL, dammit, when I would be thinking “well this combination of behaviours suggest either this, or this, but then again if this other factor is in play which we don’t know about it could be this”. I thought I was completely unperceptive. and then the first time someone confidently described a situation to me where they turned out to be completely wrong, I thought “hmmmm, maybe I’m not less perceptive…. maybe I’m just more realistic”

      2. ThatGirl*

        I agree that it’s not about being sensitive. I’m saying I don’t believe empaths can actually feel the motions of everyone in the room — I think it’s nearly always a projection of anxiety, poor boundaries or abuse.

      3. Robin*

        “Empaths” are, to me, part and parcel of the New Age woo that’s taken over parts of the internet. This type of empathy that you describe does not exist! And if you feel like that, please go to therapy.

          1. Emily*

            I don’t think having a debate about whether empaths exist is helpful. It’s not really relevant. Whether or not Vanessa is indeed an “empath”, the issues are how she is behaving at work, how it is impacting others, and what should be done to address it.

          2. Student*

            I think that there are people who sincerely believe that they experience other people’s feelings.

            I think there are people who sincerely believe they’ve experienced ghosts, alien abductions, and spoken to animals, among other phenomenon.

            I don’t believe that any of these people are correct. Just that they are sincere in their mistaken beliefs, and probably also in need of professional help.

            I think that if any of these abilities or experiences were real, we’d be able to document them, study them, reproduce them, and collect mountains of compelling evidence about them. I also think that if these things were real, corporations and governments would be making & spending money over them, because profit makes the world go ’round. Corporations would post empath job positions. The government would hire animal speakers to deal with animal control issues and work at national parks. Everyone would hire alien abduction victims to siphon as much alien tech intel they possibly could. Real estate agents would routinely offer ghost rehab, relocation, and remediation services as part of their services, and mortgage lenders would ask questions on forms in triplicate about a residence’s hauntibility rating.

            So, as soon as a marketing or banking company posts an opening for an empath, or a job where empath abilities are a listed requirement, then I’ll believe.

            1. House On The Rock*

              You may enjoy the Netflix series Lockwood & Co. as it’s kind of this premise.

        1. They Called Me Skeletor.....*

          most empaths already are in therapy but thanks for the recommendation.

          1. Former Young Lady*

            That’s a…bold claim. Can you cite an evidence-based source that defines what an “empath” really is, and provides hard data for a percentage of such people who are in therapy?

            1. They Called Me Skeletor.....*

              unfortunately, there are no studies. however the empath group I belong to about 85% of the people, and this is a group of about 5,000 people, are in therapy.

      4. Zap R.*

        I don’t think that’s being an empath then; I think that’s having social anxiety disorder.

      5. Hi! Hello! Good morning!*

        Funny how they never feel the positive emotions. They don’t feel elated when someone “in the room” read a text with happy news, they don’t feel proud when someone “in the room” sees they got all As in their last semester, and so on.

        1. Gemstones*

          Yes, I don’t understand it either…why does Vanessa’s empath-ness only manifest in tears? She never picks up on joy?

    2. Chick (on phone)*

      I am a person who would fall under the “empath” umbrella and I agree with you entirely. I also think it’s a terrible idea to romanticize being an empath- I find it exhausting and annoying to deal with.

    3. Ammonite*

      Ehhh, affective empathy is a real thing, and people have varying degrees of it. “Very sensitive to other people’s feelings” is basically affective empathy.

      The real problem I observe with people who label themselves empaths is that sometimes they misread affect and start empathizing with an emotion that the other person does not actually feel.

      1. ThatGirl*

        There’s a difference between understanding how others may be feeling and literally feeling it. I can be very empathetic toward people. I am not an empath. Your last sentence basically illustrates this — misreading someone’s body language or affect and assuming they know how that person is feeling.

      2. Distracted Librarian*

        Your last sentence–yes. I’ve had people ascribe mistaken emotions to me, and it’s exhausting and frustrating to deal with. Like, no, I’m not mad/sad/whatever. They’re projecting, and it makes it really hard to communicate with them–especially when they argue with me about what I’m actually feeling.

    4. Whew*

      A lot of what people call being an empath is just…projecting a lot. I’m so empathic I know and feel your feelings, and they just happen to be the ones I have decided you have? Definitely being “an empath” and not poor boundaries, history of abuse leading to scrutinizing every hair of subtext, or massive anxiety.

      The only thing Tim is off base on is “tough love” – he’s spot on otherwise.

      1. I edit everything*

        Yes. I’ve been married 25+ years, and my husband, the person who knows me best in the world, still gets it wrong more than half the time, when he describes what he thinks I’m feeling.
        I don’t believe a random person can accurately *feel* the emotions of everyone in a room. They might be incredibly perceptive (a la “The Mentalist” or John Edward) and good at reading expressions, but there’s no psychic link. That would drive anyone mad, if they were in the same room with more than five people for any length of time.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          One thing I loved about The Mentalist is that the show really stressed that Jane is an ex con artist and practiced mentalist who uses cues, memory tricks and general knowledge of human behavior to do his “astounding” feats of prognostication. He’s not unusually sensitive to others at ALL–his Big Feelings are all about the tragedies he suffered and even his job as police consultant is geared towards his own ends in the early seasons.

          He makes the point, over and over, that people who insist that they are super woo-woo type sensitive or psychic or whatever are at best, self-deluded to some extent, and more probably trying to rip you off.

      2. Kit*

        I am well aware I am biased when it comes to self-described “empaths” – an ex who projected heavily and then tried to minimize any emotional responses I had that they didn’t like will do that – but yeah, all of this.

        I did note that LW is the one who described Tim’s approach as “tough love,” though, and I would not be surprised if another reader (or Alison herself) might describe it as “matter-of-fact” if not seen through the lens of needing to protect Vanessa from her own reactions. If you know Vanessa is going to cry at any negative feedback, it may well be kinder to rip the band-aid off than to dance around specifics of what improvements need to be seen in order to keep her on the team.

      3. Zap R.*

        Came here to say this. I grew up in an emotionally abusive environment. Learning to sense other peoples’ moods and feelings was a survival tactic. As an adult, it’s led to A LOT of projection.

        1. DoodleBug*

          And wanting to manage other people’s emotions, which gets overwhelming fast! (Been there too)

          1. arthur lester*

            Managing other people’s emotions isn’t just overwhelming for the manager, it’s also overwhelming if you’re being managed! I understand and empathize (hah) with the sort of trauma that might lead someone to do that, but also, if I’m expressing minor frustration over something, I don’t need to be treated like a child having a temper tantrum. I’m an adult; if I stub my toe or something, I am allowed to be pissed off for a second. I will be fine. Do not manage me.

            1. goddessoftransitory*

              And it’s exhausting, also, in that you can’t have any strong emotion EVER without setting this person off and feeling panicky that they did something wrong, or missed a cue. You end up feeling horrible for hurting them when something happens to you!

      4. ThatGirl*

        Yep. That’s exactly what I’m saying! (I know you agree with me, just agreeing back.)

      5. BethRA*

        Agree. I feel like people who call themselves “empaths” are just the weepy, melodramatic cousins of the people who call themselves “blunt” “truth-tellers.”

      6. Jellyfish Catcher*

        The phrase “tough love” was used by the OP, not Tim, to describe her take on how he would handle this issue.
        Tim asked for information (ADA, etc), and said that he would discuss the issue directly with the employee, as she would need to stop that behavior.

        This had apparently never been done! So, OP interpreted it as harsh.
        Tim did not indicate that the employee had to go; he indicated that the employee had to be Managed to stop a specific behavior.

        I expect that the entire team will need some reset as well, since this group dysfunction has gone on for so long.
        Tim, good luck!

    5. NotaBean*

      I was young when I first heard of empaths, and I immediately resonated with it. I definitely called myself an empath at some point. I also had severe, untreated anxiety and depression, and trauma that resulted in me being overly sensitive to small changes in perceived behavior.
      It wasn’t until I heard more people talk about being empaths, and how we should thus bend over backwards to make them feel good, it became clear to me that it’s just…not a thing, and even if it was I hated that people took it to the point that they did. So I completely agree with you.
      Being sensitive is a wonderful trait, but if you make your sensitivity the problem of everyone else it’s obnoxious and entitled.

      (10 years later and I am 10000% better FYI)

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I’m on the autism spectrum and have gotten to be very good at reading facial and body language cues mostly to protect myself from doing or saying the kinds of mortifying things I did and said in social situations when I was younger. (I’m also fantastic with animals.) I am not an empath–I can make a good guess at what the other person is feeling and respond accordingly, but I don’t literally feel their feelings.

        My response when it looks like I hit a nerve is to back off and change the topic to something lighter. So far, this hasn’t failed me. Digging in and ramping up the emotions seems really intrusive–how, when, and to what degree their emotions are expressed is not my decision to make.

    6. bream*

      Thank you for saying this. Any “empath” I’ve known is almost always wrong in the emotions they attribute to others, and everyone ends up on edge trying to avoid whatever triggers will make the “empath” decide that others are sad, angry, whatever. It totally derails productive conversation.

    7. K8T*

      +1,000. Absolutely not a real thing and it kills me when people describe themselves as such.

    8. Meow*

      Hmmm… yes and no. I agree that I think there’s usually some underlying issue that makes someone an “empath”. But in the context of say, Autism or ADHD, difficultly with regulating emotions is it’s own unique problem that most experts argue is a trait of the condition, not caused by abuse or anxiety. That said, there are others that believe that the emotional disregulation that comes with ADHD and with some people with autism *is* actually caused by widespread chronic abuse, because so many of their parents and teachers verbally abuse and gaslight them, often without even realizing it. :(

      1. ThatGirl*

        I am sure I didn’t cover all of the reasons someone might call themselves an empath without having any actual psychic powers – but you get the drift. :)

    9. arthur lester*

      I have been frequently labeled as an empath by other and you are absolutely correct. I have a history of environments that lead me to need to be attuned to others’ emotional states to maintain safety, and incredible pattern recognition.

      It’s not supernatural, and it is frequently incredibly self-serving. Other “empaths” do not like when I tell them this.

    10. Fluffy Fish*

      Hard agree. My therapist and I joke that I have an overabundance of empathy – the thing is is it’s NOT about anyone else but me. It’s about my feelings on things and the work we do in regards to it is to help me manage my emotions to not act in appropriately in a given situation.

      Bottom line – Vanessa’s emotions and their manifestation are about her and her perceptions and she’s inflicting it on everyone else around her. Meanwhile OP is so focused on managing Vanessas feelings that she’s ignoring everyone else.

      If this was someone who was prone to bouts of rage no one would tolerate it nor suggest it had anything to do with “sensing” others emotions.

      I say all this because I think OP needs to try to come around to a different perspective on what’s going on. Whatever reason for the behavior doesn’t really matter – the behavior and disruption its causing does.

      I would also encourage OP to take a step back and reconsider Tim’s suggestion. I suspect it’s less tough-love and more simply not coddling Vanessa.

    11. Double A*

      My husband is an empath (I guess? I also dislike that term), but what that means is he is a parabolic dish for emotion. Whatever emotion is around him, he reflects it back more intensely. It’s absolutely a trauma response and it does not make him more sensitive to other people’s emotions; if anything, he’s LESS sensitive because he’s too amped up to be compassionate towards anyone else.

      I’m not empathetic, and it makes it possible for me to do compassionate work with people in difficult situations, because I don’t spend a ton of energy all up in my own feelings because of someone else’s feelings. I can be kind of detached and calm in the face of strong emotion.

    12. Observer*

      I’m gonna say something potentially controversial: I don’t think being an empath is a real thing. I think most people who call themselves empaths actually have anxiety, serious boundary issues, or a history of abuse that makes them very sensitive to other people’s feelings.

      The thing is that none of this is really relevant.

      That’s the thing that the OP needs to realize. The discussion is interesting and I also tend to agree with this statement. But it doesn’t really MATTER. Because it does change the problem.

      The basic problem is that for some reason Vanessa’s emotional regulation is bad enough that people who don’t know her get seriously distracted by her behavior and people who DO know her take quick and strong action to keep her from melting down. That’s just not viable at work.

    13. morethantired*

      This take is a little absurd. Most people are capable of empathy, and it makes sense some people may be better at it than others just as it makes sense that some people are really bad at feeling empathy. It’s not like ESP or anything. The term is just short-hand for people who are highly empathetic to the point where they can sometimes feel others feelings as if it were their own. Some folks take it too far in assuming what it can mean, but it is real. There are research studies to support this.

      That being said, the behavior described by LW isn’t empathy. That would be if Vanessa couldn’t help but cry if others were crying or upset. It sounds like Vanessa is just incredibly emotionally fragile. She cannot handle any strong personal emotions without crying.

      1. ThatGirl*

        That was my point though, it’s not ESP, these people aren’t psychic, they’re having trauma responses or anxiety or similar things. They’re not actually feeling other people’s feelings, they are projecting and internalizing.

        1. morethantired*

          But that’s not it. Research studies that support the concept are like those where people received electric shocks and then later told someone close to them is getting the same shocks. Their brains then reacted in the same exact way as it did when they were receiving the shocks themselves. They experienced the pain. BUT as this study indicates, contrary to how most people talk about it, this kind of extreme empathy more predictably occurs when you have an actual connection with the other person and have experienced what they are experiencing yourself.

          1. design ghost*

            No one is saying that empathy as a concept doesn’t exist lol. But people who call themselves “empaths” do often mean that they think they have ESP. There’s people posting on this page saying that they can feel the emotions of everyone in a room when they enter it.

            And yes, there are studies showing that some people have a stronger empathic response than other people, under certain circumstances. That’s part of the range of empathy that everyone experiences, not just people who call themselves “empaths”.

            1. morethantired*

              Just because people misuse the term doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as an empath. It’s more like how OCD is a real condition and yet so many people say “I have OCD” because they like things super tidy or organized. Experts in psychology and neurodiversity talk about empaths. My point is that it’s real, it’s just very misunderstood by most people. Like most things having to do with neurology and mental health.

          2. I should really pick a name*

            Assuming that’s what the study described:
            That’s actually an example of what ThatGirl is describing. Someone is reacting to what they perceive as opposed to actually feeling what other people are feeling (which is what some “empaths” claim they can do).

            They have been told that someone is getting shocked. That doesn’t mean someone else is actually getting shocked.
            Also, they are having the reaction when they were told about it. They didn’t feel it when the other person was shocked (if they were).

            Further to that, they are experiencing THEIR impression of a shock, not the other person’s.

            1. morethantired*

              The other person was getting shocked and it was a simultaneous reaction, so it was as if both people were being shocked at the same time, but only one was. And this didn’t occur in all the test subjects, just some of them. You can google the study.

          3. Spencer Hastings*

            There have also been studies where they scanned people’s brains while asking them “what do you think about ethical issue X?” and “what does God think about ethical issue X?” The same parts of the brain lit up. This is not evidence for the existence of God, but rather that people project themselves into the situation. I think this is a similar thing.

            1. morethantired*

              First, these are studies on determining what qualifies a highly empathetic person (empath) and the capacity of humans to feel each other’s feelings. The study you’re talking about probably wasn’t trying to prove the existence of God. Asking a study to provide evidence for something it never sought to find is not how scientific research works.
              Second, it stands to reason that anyone who believes in God would have, in some part, rooted their own ethics in their religion. Therefore, it makes sense that they would be thinking of ethics in the same part of the brain as religion. And most religion does heavily involve ethics.
              Third, imagining what someone you have never met thinks is completely different than a response to your loved one getting a painful shock, you had previously experienced these same painful shocks, and then you’re hearing or seeing them receive these shocks either in the same room or remotely. The former is entirely theoretical. The latter is a tangible experience.

              1. Happy*

                I think you’ve missed the point. There’s a difference between being an especially empathetic person (which I haven’t seen anyone argue doesn’t exist) and being a self-described “empath.”

      2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        I believe you can practice the skill of ‘ empathy’ a bit too much. I have practiced my skills so I’m a little sensitive but it’s not magic.

      3. Glen*

        that’s… literally what they’re saying? Read some other comments here – plenty of people (bizarrely) think “being an empath” – the ability to literally “feel” other people’s emotions, an actual paranormal ability – is a real thing. People who call themself an “empath” don’t just mean they are particularly empathetic, they mean that they have an ability akin to telepathy that allows them to supernaturally perceive other people’s emotions.

      4. They Called Me Skeletor*

        Thanks for calling my take absurd. You’ve reminded me why I very rarely comment on this site. ” I’ve never experienced it and I don’t believe in it so you and your take on something is absurd.” That’s very….disrespectful…..discourse. Thanks for reminding me why I only read this site and no longer actively participate.

        Back to major lurker mode.

    14. design ghost*

      It’s wild that people treat empaths as a real thing when it’s pretty much the same as telepathy. You can’t read anyone’s emotions by walking into a room any more than you can read their minds. It’s not a real thing.

      You can be influenced by other people’s emotions, but that describes literally everyone. Some people are more easily influenced than others, sure, but it’s still a very normal human experience and not magic.

      And yes, some people are better than others at reading other people’s emotions, but it’s only emotions they are giving off signals of, and even then it would mostly be accurate for people you know. Anything else a so-called empath claims they can do is about as credible as “body language experts.” Even people who are very attuned to emotions due to a history of abuse, for example, are most accurate about reading the emotions of their abuser, not everyone else.

      1. STAT!*

        “You can’t read anyone’s emotions by walking into a room any more than you can read their minds. It’s not a real thing.” So much agree with this statement! In fact, if neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett is correct, then there is no difference between thoughts & feelings. (My understanding of her argument, anyway.)

    15. Rex Libris*

      This. I’m willing to believe someone is an empath the second they can explain how they’re reading the neurochemical changes the limbic system in my brain is producing in response to stimuli, because that’s basically all emotions are.

      I think it’s entirely possible that some people are so sensitive to minute physical changes in body language, facial expression, etc. that they’re reading those, possibly without even realizing it, but that’s not being an empath, that’s anxiety and/or hypervigilance.

    16. Feotakahari*

      My problem with the “empath” label is the way it gets positioned as “good neurodivergence” versus cluster B disorders as “bad neurodivergence.” There’s an alarming amount of online content that basically positions empaths as messiahs come to save us from the inherent villainy and corruption of people with cluster B disorders.

    17. Cheezmouser*

      Empaths are real. I’m married to one and I’ve observed him for 20+ years. The problem is that people confuse “empathy” for “sensitivity” or just being emotional. Most people have some degree of empathy, and that’s normal; empaths perceive the emotions of others to an unusual degree. It’s like the difference between a smart person vs a genius. Many people are very smart; there are few geniuses. It’s hard to describe the difference between the two, but it’s tied to degree and innate ability. Likewise, a lot of people are very empathetic, but that doesn’t make them an empath. There is a lot of misunderstanding and mislabeling out there.

      Some examples of empath stuff from my husband:
      *He can sense the emotions or “energy” of those around him. This is not the same as reading social cues. For example, he can often sense my anxiety acting up before I do, like those medical alert dogs except for emotions. He does this even if I’m doing something normal, like reading on the couch or making a sandwich.

      *He sometimes knows things about people that he should have no business knowing, things that they would not admit even to themselves, like “Bob is so hard on Bill because he sees a younger version of himself in Bill, but he resents that Bill is able to achieve so much in his career without sacrificing his family, while Bob felt he had to sacrifice his family for his career. Bob tells himself it was worth it and he made the right choice, but secretly Bob is deeply ashamed and regretful that his children and wife are estranged, so he clings to his career for his sense of identity and makes himself feel better by being condescending to Bill.” (This was Husband’s former boss, and there was no way in hell Bob would ever admit the above to Husband, but Husband could read it anyway. It’s unclear if Bob had ever even admitted the above to himself.)

      *He is incredibly emotional stable and has strong emotional management skills, because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to function. He learned coping strategies as a teen, so that he could separate his own emotions from the emotions of people around him. Sometimes my anxiety gets too much for him and he needs to open up a window to “let all the nervous energy out of the house.”

      *He can oftentimes (but not always) tell when someone is lying.

      *It is incredibly hard to surprise him with a gift. I once told him “I got you a little something” and he guessed the exact gift based on those words alone.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Being really observant and making logical jumps in assumptions about people he knows is impressive, to be sure, but it doesn’t make him psychic. You mention alert dogs and I believe it’s roughly the same thing – picking up on subtle cues from someone you know well. And – even if he 100% is an empath (still not sure that’s exactly what you describe) -he’d still be the one extremely rare case among hundreds of anxious boundaryless people.

        1. Cheezmouser*

          Of course he’s not psychic, although sometimes he makes me wonder, lol. He’s done the “correctly guess the present” thing to me on multiple occasions, but that’s because he knows me so well. He wouldn’t be able to do that to strangers. My point is that when an empath combines the insights that he gleans from empathy with his understanding of a particular person, he can have really deep levels of understanding of that person, to the point that he can often predict their actions.

          Yes, it’s definitely based on subtle cues, although it’s weird cuz sometimes he doesn’t even have to look at or talk to them, he can just “feel” the emotions coming off someone. It’s kinda like how your skin crawls when you’re stuck in a crowded hospital waiting room with fifty other sick, injured, worried, desperate people. You can practically feel the misery in the air. Normal people can feel that because the emotions are so concentrated; he can feel that coming from just one person instead of fifty. And it’s not just strong negative emotions, it’s any type of emotion. There’s a lot of interpretation that comes with it, like “this person seems anxious, it’s probably because they’re in a new situation where they want to make a good impression but they lack confidence so they’re trying to cover it up by faking it until they make it.”

          Yeah, agree that most “empaths” are not actual empaths. I think some of it is genetic. His mother sometimes does empath stuff. She talks about people’s “auras”; he talks about “energy.” None of his 4 other siblings display unusual empathy or speak in those terms.

          1. sascha*

            “this person seems anxious, it’s probably because they’re in a new situation where they want to make a good impression but they lack confidence so they’re trying to cover it up by faking it until they make it.”

            to be honest, an analysis like that doesn’t sound too far off from a horoscope

            1. Cheezmouser*

              In what way? In that it seems generic and could apply to anyone? Obviously I was giving a general example just to illustrate how perceiving someone’s emotions can lead to better understanding of their fears, motivations, actions, etc. If you want a specific example, then you’d have to point out a specific person and my husband would have to read them to see what he could glean. Sometimes it’s really specific, like “she is trying way too hard to catch that guy’s attention because she’s afraid of being alone” or sometimes there’s just “she seems like the really chill type” or sometimes there’s nothing specific. He’s not a psychic, and he can only somewhat control his empathy. Sometimes he picks up stuff he doesn’t want to, sometimes he picks up nothing even when he’s trying.

              1. sascha*

                well, yes. “she is trying way too hard to catch that guy’s attention because she’s afraid of being alone” and “she seems like the really chill type” are extremely generic and not really something you’re able to verify in any concrete way. seeing a women acting up to get someone’s attention and saying she’s probably afraid of being alone is not only a very mundane conclusion but something that can be applied to countless (if not virtually all) people

        2. Gemstones*

          I’m reminded of Miranda’s response on Sex and the City to Richard telling Sam he got scared and thus cheated: “So what? They get a medal for correctly identifying a feeling? We do that all day long. I feel pissed off. Ta-dahhhh!”

      2. Lucky Meas*

        How does he know that Bob thinks that if Bob has never said that to anyone? Could also be that Bill said something to Bob in a private conversation your husband didn’t know. And guessing presents from your spouse doesn’t take a superhuman level of sensitivity…

        1. Cheezmouser*

          Husband is “Bill” in the story above. He knows because he can read Bob’s emotions. He can sense Bob’s pain and regret when Bob is talking big about his son coming to visit (son lives on opposite coast, hasn’t visited in 2 years). Husband can hear it when Bob starts ranting about how he got where he got because he was willing to make sacrifices. The empathy allows Husband to see the disparity between what Bob says vs how Bob really feels. Bob doesn’t realize that Husband reads him that well, and obviously doesn’t know about the empathy thing, but Husband is known throughout the company as the Bob whisperer cuz half his job is wrangling Bob. (Think of Bob as moody genius who generates a lot of revenue.) The empathy allows Husband to read Bob and know when Bob wants to be left alone, when Bob wants to vent, when Bob wants to show off in front of someone, etc. Husband is a very good wrangler because of his empathy.

          1. design ghost*

            So your example of how your husband is an empath is that he identified his boss’s emotions.

            And your proof that he’s correct about those emotions is that he’s an empath so obviously he’s right.

            Makes perfect sense, no notes.

          2. Gemstones*

            It sounds a little like wishful thinking to be honest. “My boss is so hard on me because he wishes he had my life!” It feels less “empath” and more like something you tell yourself because you’re frustrated with your boss.

          3. Lucky Meas*

            Sorry, I still don’t think that being able to discern pretty obvious emotions (Bob explicitly ranting about his sacrifices…) in someone you work very closely with means you have superhuman abilities. Any good secretary, business partner, spouse, friend, dog should be able to do that…

      3. The Charioteer*

        Guessing what present you got is being an empath? That makes it sound like he’s reading your mind.

        1. Cheezmouser*

          Sorta. He’s not psychic, and maybe that wasn’t the best example because it’s specific to me. He wouldn’t be able to do that with a stranger. If a stranger asked him to guess a present, he wouldn’t be able to guess the exact thing, it would be more like “it’s something tricky because you don’t believe in empaths and you want to trick me just to prove your point; the box may even be empty” or “it’s something personal to you, like a photo or a piece of jewelry, because you feel really close to that person, they mean a lot to you.”

          Okay, now that I’m looking at it, it does make him sound like a psychic, LOL. But he’s not, he’s just really good at reading people and getting a feel for them, which sometimes allows him to predict their actions. I don’t know exactly how it works either, but I’ve learned that he’s usually pretty close.

          1. The Charioteer*

            So he can guess what present his spouse got him but not one a stranger got him? Shocking…

            None of that makes him sound psychic at all. These seem like normal conclusions that you’re presenting as some sort of paranormal ability.

    18. Cheryl Blossom*

      THANK YOU.

      I’d also add that most people who self-describe as empaths are drama magnets who want to make everyone else’s emotions (real or projected) about themselves.

    19. HalJordan*

      There was an interesting paper I read a few years ago about potential connections between emotions and scent.

      The premise was essentially that (1) human release various hormones during strong emotion (which, yeah); (2) hormones contain olfactory/scent markers; (3) humans have an ability to (subconsciously) pick up on lingering or strong scent markers of emotion and may be able to assign them to an associated emotion. So, like, if you walk into a room that just had an exam in it, you might be able to pick up *~*vibes*~* of stress and think you’re an ~*~empath~*~, when you’re really faintly smelling the traces of people’s cortisol and producing your own in response.

      But, a couple corollaries:
      1. this ability, such as it is, has probably decreased through evolution (like any ability we have to navigate based on magnetic fields). we’re obviously not as good at sensing scents as other animals. because we figured out words
      2. because we’re not great at it, it requires strong emotion, preferably from lots of people simultaneously, which usually has other markers (e.g., visible tears, or, you know, you’re in a room on campus during exam season). So the less-strong the feeling or the fewer the people feeling it, the less likely there’ll be enough to pick up or identify
      3. it doesn’t work at all remotely.

      I don’t think that’s what’s happening with Vanessa or a lot of other performative empaths–that seems to be more about feeling Their Feelings, rather than others’–but it’s an interesting perspective on Vibes!

  14. L-squared*

    I’m so happy with Alison’s answer, because while reading it, all I thought was “Tim is 100% right, and you (OP) has been there so long you are ignoring a serious issue”

    Even in how he is discussing it, he is right. You say you know Vanessa is an adult, but don’t seem to be willing to talk to her like one.

    The fact that 8 people have now just “worked around it”, but you are expecting 8 others and a new manager to do the same does call into question how impartial you are being here. This sounds like you have a more personal stake in Vanessa, and you don’t want this outsider coming an and commenting on real issues that are there with “your” team.

    1. Cat's Paw for Cats*

      Me too. I was worried as I read this that I would be the odd man out. Frankly, I doubt that Vanessa’s coworkers are as okay with this as OP seems to think.

    2. Observer*

      . You say you know Vanessa is an adult, but don’t seem to be willing to talk to her like one.


      Agreed with the rest, as well.

  15. They Called Me Skeletor.....*

    I just want to say that there’s a big difference between having empathy for someone and being an empath. being an empath involves feeling the feelings that everyone in any room is feeling and it comes at you like a freight train and unless you’ve got some really good adaptive armor going it’s blindsided. it’s well beyond the normal empathy that one would feel for a fellow human being.

      1. They Called Me Skeletor.....*

        no all I’m simply saying is that she may be overwhelmed with their emotions. it is overwhelming unless you have good protective armor put up.

        1. Gemstones*

          But why is the only feeling she picks up on sadness? Her coworkers are presumably happy sometimes…wouldn’t she sometimes pick up on joy and thus NOT cry during a meeting? Also, presumably her coworkers all have different feelings, since they are separate people. What happens if one is feeling joyful, one is feeling a little sad, and one is feeling bored? I guess I’m just confused why it all seems to translate to tears.

    1. TeacherofMiddle*

      Being an empath or not isn’t the issue because it is not a protected class. Even understanding what it is like to be an empath does not change what needs to happen in this situation. Vanessa needs to be able to handle herself.

      1. Observer*

        It wouldn’t matter if it was a protected class. Because the protection is not against needing to behave appropriately at work. And right now Vanessa is NOT behaving appropriately.

        Now, protection would require that the employer make reasonable accommodation, but the OP and their company don’t need a “protected class” to make *reasonable* accommodations, if Vanessa figured out what she needs to be enabled to keep her behavior in check.

    2. bream*

      I said this on another comment above, but in any interaction I’ve had with people who call themselves empaths, they are often wrong about the emotions they attribute to others. That makes it seem to me like it’s more about them than the emotions others are having. It is so exhausting trying to convince someone that you’re not sad, angry, or whatever and it totally derails productive communication.

    3. Conundrum*

      If the empath is so empathetic, shouldn’t they feel that their empathy may be causing others to feel uncomfortable?

      1. Observer*

        Not necessarily – if someone is really feeling everyone’s emotions, then that could be too overwhelming. Which is why they would need good “armor”.

    4. sookie st james*

      I feel for you (if I’m interpreting correctly that you identify with this label) that you experience significant amounts of overwhelm and hyper-sensitivity.

      I struggle with the word ‘empath’ because it implies that whatever the empath thinks others are feeling is a fact, when it’s nothing more than a perception or an assumption which could be off base – no matter how intense the feelings attached to it are.

      I do believe it’s possible for people to be hyper-sensitive to others behaviours/expressions/body language. But I don’t think they should allow their actions to be dictated by the conclusions they draw. What they are experiencing is an onslaught of their own emotions – triggered by perceptions that may or may not be grounded in the truth. In reality, we can never *know* what other people are feeling unless they tell us.

      Regardless of where Vanessa’s feelings come from (a paranormal experience of others’ emotions, being highly perceptive, or because she’s misinterpreting her own emotions as having an external rather than internal source) choosing to use the language of ‘empathy’ – a positive characteristic – to describe what is happening fails to acknowledge the very real damage she’s causing to her team by refusing to figure out how to manage this in an appropriate way.

    5. Cheryl Blossom*

      Even if I agreed with you that being an empath is a real thing, my answer would be the same: if that is how you are going through life then you would probably benefit from therapy and better coping mechanisms.

  16. Queen George*

    “Empath” is not a diagnostic term, and it is sometimes used as a cover-up to avoid what Captain Awkward would call the “broken stair.” If everyone is having to change their routines and behavior to accommodate a single individual to this extreme, something needs to be addressed. I’m definitely one of the people who would find this troubling and distracting.

    1. Observer*

      I think that the whole discussion of whether Vanessa is an empath, whether empaths actually exist, whether they are right or wrong, or whether it’s a diagnostic term, to be a distraction.

      Vanessa’s behavior and the OP’s reaction do sound like a classic “missing stair” situation, as you say. And I think that this is what the OP needs to focus on.

      1. Poppy*

        Agreed – we’re not supposed to arm-chair diagnosefor a reason. Hundreds of comments on whether empathy exists and whether it’s OK or not to cry about a relative’s pet dying are *so* not to the point. Tim is doing what he can to address the problem and we could focus on that instead. Vanessa sounds exhausting and barely adult and could do with learning some coping strategies, for everyone’s sake, and Tim is right to draw attention to this problem. Chances are he’s been asked to address it and that’s why he’s doing so while he’s new.

        OP, try to listen to your new manager!

  17. Chairman of the Bored*

    The bird thing is bananas.

    Vanessa’s colleagues should have to scurry around creating distractions and disposing of carcasses in order to spare her from possibly seeing a dead bird.

    It sounds like her “quirkiness” is imposing a lot of additional work on the people around her, and Tim is right to be skeptical of this whole arrangement.

  18. The Person from the Resume*

    She is an empath and cries a lot.

    Being emphathic (extremely perceptive of the feelings and emotions of people around them) doesn’t actually correlate to crying a lot. It’s feeling all the emotions of people around them not just sadness.

    So you’re left with someone who cries a lot and while she is fine being ignored while crying, that’s really awkward for the people around her. She needs to stop crying when she’s feeling big sad upsetting emotions about small things that everyone else in the office deals with without crying.

  19. Marketing Unicorn Ninja*

    LW, I mean this as nicely as I possibly can, but Tim is right and you are wrong. I have worked with a Vanessa. She cried at everything — a cupcake fell on the floor, someone didn’t thank her profusely enough for doing her job, it was raining when the weather forecast had called for sun, a late frost killed the daffodils, etc. — and it was frankly beyond exhausting to try to manage her emotions and manage her feelings and manage meetings so that her feelings and emotions wouldn’t get hurt or overwhelming. It got to the point that no one was willing to work with her on anything — even though she was very good at her core job responsibilities — because she was just so mentally exhausting to deal with and no one was willing to trade the hours of tears for cooperative work with her.

    I don’t think ‘tough love,’ is the right approach, but I do think Tim is right that y’all have danced around this for so long that your sense of normal is warped.

    1. Nook Nook*

      This. All of this. I have a Vanessa on my team as well. Thankfully we aren’t in the office and all WFH now, but the tears still flow during Teams meetings. Last week it was because her internet cut out for 4 minutes at the most (during a slow period in the day), and just yesterday I had to calm her down because the font color on one of our programs changed from blue to a darker blue.

      Tough love may not be the way, but allowing this to go on and enabling this behavior definitely cannot continue. Tim is right for wanting something to be done, LW. Can’t wait for an update on this one. I’m sure there will be many tears shed.

    2. Salsa Verde*

      I said this above, but I am not convinced that tough love is what Tim is suggesting. That’s what the OP described it as, and I’m not sure exactly what OP means by that.

      1. bream*

        This exactly. If Tim just wants to be able to talk to Vanessa as an adult, that’s not tough love.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Yes! Tim isn’t her family member or friend, he’s her manager who wants to have functional adult relationship with his report, as is reasonable.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, I would like to hear from a disinterested third party on this. The OP seems far too invested in protecting Vanessa for me to believe that Tim’s love is all that tough.

    3. Damn it, Hardison!*

      I had a roommate that cried every single day, multiple times. It was how she dealt with anything she found unpleasant, even minor, everyday things. The 6 months I lived with her was the longest 5 years of my life.

    4. Grace Poole*

      I once asked a colleague to look at a document I was sent from a vendor that I work with that was directly related to her area of expertise. I later got a call from her manager asking what I said to her, and all I could say was, “I asked her to review a pdf if she had a minute.” Apparently, the document made her feel stupid because of how it was worded, and she burst into tears and had to be sent home. I heard through the grapevine that it wasn’t an isolated occurrence, and that department just keeps stepping over the broken step of her emotions.

  20. JelloStapler*

    I am a raging empath and manage to regulate my emotions at work (I have to as I work with students who sometimes are bringing a lot of emotion to me and I need to be the calm one). Do I get teary if very frustrated or touched by something, yes. but I have managed to only do it behind closed doors or with a select few one on one whom I trust and am close to.

    I do think there can a middle ground of respecting Vanessa while gently encouraging her to get some tools to manage this instead of a missing stair situation.

  21. Falling Diphthong*

    I want to push back a bit on the implied prioritizing of empathy as the most evolved state.

    One aspect of maturity is that you can dial down your empathy to deal with emergencies, and more generally with life’s slings and arrows. The trajectory is self -> empathy for others -> regulating that to carry out needed tasks as an individual and member of the community.

    Example: If someone is bleeding badly, you want an adult who will apply pressure to the wound while directing others to call 911 or get the first aid kit or otherwise be useful; you don’t want the person who just redirects to themselves with “I feel your pain!!!! It’s like it’s my pain!” Sometimes maturity means clamping down on our emotions, because we would not do anything useful if we really reveled in the shock or horror or grief or whatever.

    1. PoolLounger*

      Thank you. I would absolutely never call myself an empath (I don’t really believe it’s a real thing—as others said above, it usually seens to be more about anxiety and projecting, and aspects can be the result of having lived with dificult or abusive people) but others have called me that, and I’m definitely very sensitive. There are aspects that are positive, but many that arre negative. I wish I could be a vet tech, or a nicu nurse like my mom, or work in a variety of other helping professions—but I absolutely can’t. Even with lots of therapy I can’t control my emotions (and sometimes their outward displays, like crying) very well. When I look for help I’m not generally looking for an “empath,” I’m looking for someone who can keep a good head on their shoulders and actively help, whether they understand my feelings/pain or not.

      1. Cut short for time*

        I realize this may be an ironic response, but I sincerely feel you. I have to have a job where I can say “No one is going to die from you screwing up”, because I am too emotional of a person and I would lose it on the regular if my job mattered in that way.

    2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      My husband and I are both good in a crisis and we joke that it’s our finely tuned ability to dissociate.

  22. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

    I find people like Vanessa very draining to be around, and I suspect people on the team do too.
    Being around that level of emotion all the time is exhausting.

    I understand some people are just criers but asking her to go somewhere private to let it out isn’t hindering her quirkiness. Vanessa can be professionally quirky, that’s a reasonable ask.

    1. goddessoftransitory*

      You can get used to being exhausted and having a huge portion of your energy stolen in this manner soooo easily, though. I work with a variant of Vanessa–he’s not a crier, he’s a desperate seeker of friendship from every sentient creature in a fifty mile radius. No inside voice (he’s like if a happy yak and an opera singer had a baby), fifteen minute calls where he does his “comedy routine” for the hapless caller who just wanted to order a pizza, repeating a joke fifteen times a shift; if he was a character on a TV sitcom people would dismiss him as “too broad,”

      We’ve been stuck with him for years and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The days he’s not there you can FEEL the difference of energy in the room as people realize they don’t have to mentally shield themselves from him, and that shielding has become normal.

      1. MsM*

        I’m sorry for your suffering, but you paint a vivid and entertaining picture of the situation.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          He’s honestly not a bad guy at all, which is why I’m sure he’s still working there. He’s just –a LOT.

  23. PiperWhite*

    Please leave birds be. A lot of them that you think are dead are merely stunned. After a while, and the time varies, they recover and will fly off and be okay.

      1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

        I believe this to be the only time I have spontaneously laughed at a M—- P—– reference! Amazing

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Completely irrelevant to the question at hand, but I was thinking the same thing! Just leave them be!

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        It takes some of them a bit, but most eventually fly shake it off and fly away.

      2. Phony Genius*

        If they just used the shovel to put the bird into an outdoor trash can, which usually has an open top, it may well have woken up and found its way out of the can. So the bird may actually be OK.

    2. EMP*

      This is only kind of true – many of them have head trauma and won’t survive much longer even if they fly away. And in the meantime, if they are stunned, moving them to a sheltered spot nearby (e.g. at the base of a potted plant, under a bush) where they won’t be stepped on or easy prey for a passing raptor/dog/large rodent is a kindness while they recover.

    3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      It is kind of ironic that they rush to intervene in the bird situation but have done nothing for years about the employee!

  24. Eldritch Office Worker*

    “I think there is a real benefit to accepting the misfits, the quirky, the sensitive among us.”

    Your heart is in the right place OP, but accepting someone and asking an entire team to either bend over backwards, or suffer discomfort themselves, in order to accommodate them is something else entirely.

    I really like the guidance the ADA uses here, and I also like that Tim asked about ADA accommodations – he’s coming at this from the right headspace. A workplace should give any accommodations that an ADA eligible individual may need to do their job as long as it doesn’t place undue hardship on the employer. Tim is correct as identifying this as an undue hardship to himself, and her colleagues. As Alison says, there may be ways to work around this, but what you’re doing now, and the burden you’re putting on your staff to accommodate her, is not acceptable.

    I cried easily when I was younger, and I really needed medication. I’m not here to diagnose Vanessa, but it may be worth it for her to look into an EAP, if your employer offers one, or to talk to a doctor about ADA accommodations. A medical professional may be better positioned to work with her to come up with actionable solutions.

    Again, OP, it’s lovely that you care. I would just encourage you to take a step back and think about the health and efficacy of your team as a whole, instead of hyperfixating on this individual.

    1. Observer*

      I really like the guidance the ADA uses here, and I also like that Tim asked about ADA accommodations –

      Good point!

      This tells me that Tim is not just someone who thinks that everyone MUST fit into one little box.

  25. Cut short for time*

    I know this is not what most people experience, but as a “sensitive” person, who was a “sensitive” child, the crying response to stress is semi-involuntary. I have to work very hard whenever there is anything distressing in my environment – I have learned to cry silently, so that if I am on the phone and someone raises their voice, I can at least sound calm and controlled. I have gone to many a bathroom directly after stressful meetings to cry. I love working from home because I cry after any stressful meeting without it affecting anyone else, or can blame connectivity issues and turn off my camera if something really distressing happens (hasn’t yet, I usually can delay until after the meeting). I know that people will see Vanessa as immature – people often have seen me that way, even as I feel like I am bending over backwards to accommodate them. I know it is distressing to others when I cry, and I try so hard to make sure it doesn’t affect anyone else. I am constantly calming my overactive nervous system down so as to appear professional, and to maintain that all day in front of others is wearing, which makes the crying stress response easier to sneak through. It is a lot, I know I am a lot, but I am just working on a different operating system. I don’t know the best way to accommodate it, because I have tried so hard to be professional in front of others, but I guess I just want to say that it does suck and I don’t want to be like this either. I would love to be like everyone else and have normal levels of emotional response, and not have to work so hard all the time, but this is just how my body responds.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Gently, if you haven’t talked to a mental health professional about this, I would recommend it.

      I’m sorry though, that does sound very hard.

      1. Cut short for time*

        I have, thanks. I had one tell me I should not mask these emotions and let people see my real emotions, which obviously would not work in the workplace. They are not super helpful at changing how my body works.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Ugh, that’s definitely not helpful. Ideally you would do something like neurofeedback. I’m sorry.

        2. Engineer*

          Cognitive behavioral therapy may be of better benefit. It focuses on how to redirect both mental and physical reactions when something triggers a response. It takes some time to really learn a good adaptive technique and then using it as second nature, but when it helps, it really helps.

          1. Cut short for time*

            I have also tried this and it didn’t work. Don’t worry everyone, I have been to a lot of therapy! If you can think of it, I have probably tried it! My urge to cry is like an urge to pee – I can hold it in only for so long, but when I feel it, I should probably make a beeline to the bathroom!

          2. PoolLounger*

            Gently, I’m not the original commenter and don’t soeak for thrm, but I’m someone who also cries a lot. When you have any brain/emotion thing that’s not typical to other people’s experiences people often mske suggestions. It can be extremely frustrating to have people suggest things that I’ve either tried and didn’t work, or that I’ve not tried for specific reasons. We’ve all heard of therapy! It can also be frustrating for people to not just accept the differences when many of us try our best not to let these differences impact other people. I’ve had multiple therapists (including dbt and cbt practitioners) say that going to another room and expressing emotions through crying is perfectly healthy. Feeling strong emotions isn’t automatically negative.

        3. Observer*

          I hope you can find someone who is a bit more helpful.

          Also, if you haven’t please look at the possibility of medication and underlying health issues. Because “overactive nervous system” sounds exhausting. And it sounds like a genuine health issue.

    2. AnotherSarah*

      This sounds so hard. I think the question for OP is, is this an undue hardship on the rest of her team? (Tim seems to think it is.) It may well suck/be hard for Vanessa to have to develop some new strategies…but that’s not a reason to not have her do it.

    3. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I also have crying as an involuntary stress reaction. My poor husband, I’ll be sitting in bed and he’ll look over and I’m just quietly crying because I’m overwhelmed about something he has no control over. Meds have helped, and over time I’ve learned to control it in the workplace a little better, but it’s incredibly hard and I do empathize with both you and Vanessa. It’s not immaturity, and it can be both really difficult and a little embarrassing.

      But I also don’t think it’s fair to Vanessa’s coworkers to handle things the way OP has been. An office where I can close the door has been helpful for me, though I have the unfortunate addition of being very pale and being visibly blotchy for like an hour if I cry. A hybrid or remote environment like you describe can be helpful. What actually works in this instance will have to be figured out internally. But “just ignore me” is unfortunately not realistic.

      1. Cut short for time*

        I completely agree, I don’t have a great solution, I guess I wanted to give people a little empathy (ha!) for the hair-trigger criers, because so often I see people just think people do it for the drama, when I know in my case that’s not true. And while I can seem normal and professional for work, I realize it might be even harder for someone worse off than me.

        1. Observer*

          I think that one of the reasons that people are reacting so strongly is because of the way the situation is being framed. Like “Vanessa is an empath, so you can’t complain about her behavior” and “No one minds” even though there is good reason to believe that this is actually not a good reflection of reality, combine to create a situation that is not just difficult but intractable.

    4. Chirpy*

      This, I also have crying as a semi-involuntary stress response. I learned to sob silently in middle school. Generally, I can keep it to just teary eyed until I can step away and calm down, but if it’s an emotional argument or particularly someone trying to do “tough love”, I just can’t stop the tears from happening. It’s very frustrating that I can’t, because I do know exactly what others think about it and how “bad” it looks for me.

      It does sound like Vanessa could use some better coping mechanisms, but tough love isn’t the best way to suggest that.

      1. Cut short for time*

        It sucks, doesn’t it? I literally have spent my life trying to not be this way, and I just think others think because they can control tears/don’t cry easily, it must be the same for everyone. It is inconceivable to people that we are not willfully dramatic. It is so frustrating.

        1. Chirpy*

          Right? Some people just process things differently, or more deeply than others. In my case, there’s also some trauma response issues that make it harder to regulate (getting yelled at or made fun of for crying does NOT help someone “get over it”) but truly, I don’t do it for drama. I’d honestly really, really prefer to avoid that particular drama of crying in front of people, especially at work.

      2. Random Dice*

        Thanks for sharing this.

        Tim is factually right, and EQ-wrong.

        Yes they need to address it.

        No, tough love is not remotely the right approach.

    5. JustAnotherEmailMarketer*

      This sounds super stressful! I’m so sorry you have to deal with that.

      BUT I think you clearly are doing multiple things to manage this and mitigate its impact on your coworkers and the people you interact with! You talk about all the strategies you implement so that you’re NOT just sitting in a meeting crying while everyone tries to carry on as normal. I’m sure that adds an additional layer of stress when these situations and related emotions come up, but it sounds like you’re doing a great job!

      I feel like if Vanessa excused herself in these moments, Tim might be more understanding. Obviously if it’s still happening all the time it could be disruptive, but people step in and out of meetings and lunches (or away from their desks) fairly frequently and that seems like it would be less distracting than someone just sitting there crying.

      All that to say, I think Vanessa would benefit from some of your strategies and I hope you’re taking good care of yourself!

      1. Observer*

        BUT I think you clearly are doing multiple things to manage this and mitigate its impact on your coworkers and the people you interact with! You talk about all the strategies you implement so that you’re NOT just sitting in a meeting crying while everyone tries to carry on as normal. I’m sure that adds an additional layer of stress when these situations and related emotions come up, but it sounds like you’re doing a great job!

        Very much all of this.

        1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

          Yes this! Also sending good vibes your way, Cut Short – you paint a really vivid picture that I totally sympathise with, though my own bodily stress reactions are different.

    6. Anon for this*

      honestly, I used to cry daily, and ugly cry in inappropriate situations, including hiding in the bushes at an internship to be away from people.

      I did DBT therapy and it helped, but the number one helpful thing has been medication. the emotions and compulsions just aren’t as strong when I’m medicated so I can deal with them appropriately and not be overwhelmed by them.

    7. beanie gee*

      If it helps, I’ve been there and it’s gotten better! From past trauma, I used to cry at just about anything that made me feel emotions. It’s taken 30 years, and I still auto-cry if someone yells at me, but I’ve been able to control myself at work for more than 15 years. I don’t know that there was anything specific that helped, but maybe a combination of time and increased confidence in myself.

      1. laser99*

        No one should be yelling at anyone at work, anyway, unless you’re about to step in an open manhole or something.

    8. Modesty Poncho*

      I’m like this too. It’s related to my autism, it’s not something I can turn off, and therapy and meds have only helped, not eliminated the problem. I now cry when I reach a 7 or 8 level of emotion, where I used to cry at a 3 or 4.
      Every time this topic comes up it reminds me I’m unemployable outside a work from home setting and I hope people realize that’s what they’re implying when they say that crying (quietly, as unobtrusively as possible, requesting no accommodation or special treatment) is unprofessional and unacceptable.

      1. A person*

        I love this comment… I think it hit what I was feeling reading this thread.

        I don’t cry at work much but when I do, I can’t help it and I hate it.

        My experience in the past with people that cry a lot is that it is easy (to me anyway) to sort of get used to “that person always cries so I don’t need to do anything about it”. I’m much more disturbed by seeing someone cry that doesn’t cry much, but I rarely judge someone for crying at work regardless of frequency or reason. Sometimes it just happens.

        But wow… all the negativity around “quirky” people here in the comments just sort of stings… i already mostly feel like a fish among birds but reading all the comments about how much people hate “quirky” people has hit a nerve especially as someone who has been told they “don’t make a good first impression” (yes that exact phrase and yes by someone I trust)… I promise I’m not trying to be cute and disruptive. I hate that I don’t know how to interact with people. I desperately wish to be “normal”, but I don’t know how to do normal and attempts at normal usually come off even weirder than I already am.

        1. laser99*

          I am very sympathetic with this. My issue, and maybe this is shared by other commentators, is sometimes it can be performative.

        2. Metal Librarian*

          I feel exactly the same – for me, my strong emotions are a symptom of my ADHD and I hate that I cry so easily and can’t control it.

        3. Critical Rolls*

          I hope you reconsider how you’re reading the comments, as I don’t think anyone is trying to express hate, that’s a *very* strong word. This commentariat has its share of misanthropes who are impatient with nearly any human fallibility (the “why am I expected to converse with my coworkers in anything other than work-related declarative sentences?” crew). Unfortunately, many people here have encountered people who use these behaviors in a manipulative way, and it has made them wary. And we are mostly conditioned to perceive crying as a sign that Something is Wrong and Action Should Be Taken, or at least that it’s rude and unkind to ignore tears and carry on talking normally. The LW’s failure to acknowledge that this places a burden on the team, both in the moment and in the “how do we keep from setting Vanessa off” department, is frustrating to a lot of people.

          If you look at previous letters, and even the response to this letter, you will find that both Alison and the commentariat are generally supportive of *occasional* tears at work, because humans cry sometimes. But Vanessa’s constant tears are another matter.

    9. Phoenix*

      Cut Short, I totally sympathize and I don’t think you’re exhausting or that there’s anything wrong with you! The difference between you and Vanessa is that you actively take steps to mitigate the effect your crying has on other people (wait until after meetings, turn your camera off etc) while she seems to just expect people to look away or otherwise accommodate her.

      FWIW, I’m with you on being super annoyed by people who act like crying is a choice and is always manipulative. Personally, when I cry, it’s not a choice, I can’t help it! But I can step away, hide my face, delay the tears for a couple minutes, etc.

      1. Lifeafterburnout*

        I, too, am a crier. Had to resign a brilliant job because the last 18 months of extreme, sustained stress – both work and family, ended up with me in tears way too often. Very unprofessional. Therapy helps a bit. Medication helps a bit. Rest helps a bit. Menopause doesn’t help at all. Trying to get rid of or working through the stress areas helps, but when you are waiting for 4 elderly parents to pass on, sigh. So yes, too much stress and no end in tge immediate future means lots of tears.

        Reading Cut Short’s posts is so helpful. It is so hard to stop/break the circular, spiral of emotions, especially when the physical is so overwhelming. Hearing your strategies are working is so inspirational for me.

        1. Lifeafterburnout*

          Just to clarify, I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m looking for any strategies, hints and tips to control emotions and not display them at work in an over-the-top manner.

          It is nearly impossible to control emotions when inflicted with so many stressors – emotional, psychological, physical, etc. Hence why I’m taking time for me first to address those stress points before looking for more appropriate work.

    10. Aggretsuko*

      This is what I’ve been thinking: you literally can’t stop someone from crying. What the heck do you tell Vanessa, that she can’t cry? Should she run to the bathroom every time it happens?

      1. Snell*

        She doesn’t have to go to the bathroom specifically, but I think it could benefit everyone if Vanessa excused herself for a short while to regain composure as needed. I mean, the person you responded to /does/ go to the bathroom for a measure of privacy while they cry.

        I don’t recall anyone here advocating telling Vanessa that she can’t cry, and if they did it would be the double-suck of unkind and genuinely useless as advice. “Crying is banned” and “cry anytime, anywhere” are two extremes with a wide stretch between them of solutions that could benefit everyone in that workplace—Vanessa, her old team, LW, Tim, the new team members. AAM brought up a few possibilities (“leaving the room if she needs to cry, a private work space if that’s feasible, a leave of absence if it’s needed, an EAP if you have one”), but I think the reason that a lot her advice and that in the subsequent commentary focuses on trying to convince the LW to seek out other solutions at all because the LW is so firmly convinced that status quo is the kindest thing to do for Vanessa (definitely arguable) and seems to have a blind spot about what might be kind for the rest of the department, or even what makes a functional workplace.

  26. Clisby*

    I feel tired just thinking of working with someone like Vanessa.

    I don’t know about Tim’s “tough love” approach – not sure what that would entail – but he is 100% right that she needs to knock it off.

    1. Antilles*

      Same! I can’t imagine being one of the new team members in this merged situation. The first time I see Vanessa start crying in a meeting or at her desk or in a team lunch (???) over totally normal every-day occurrences, I’m going to (a) wonder what happened and (b) be absolutely walking on eggshells going forwards.

      If she’s crying over the vanilla discussion of the merger, how’s she reacting when I have to ask for a status update on something? Am I going to have to worry about her busting out in tears in front of our client if we get on a Teams call? How do I do the normal back-and-forth of “why’d you do X?” What if I’m reviewing her calculations and find an error, how do I address that without it turning into a thing?

      Maybe the rest of the existing team has gotten used to just sort of ignoring it, but there’s no way the newly merged people or newly hired outsiders are going to be comfortable with this.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

        > crying over the vanilla discussion of the merger

        This may be me projecting my own experience, but I thought this could be due to anxiety over what the future will be like, job security, what does it mean that we have this new team, will they need everybody or will some of us be let go?, will things change in the way we do them (I bet she isn’t very good with change either), will these new people break up our little circle, why couldn’t things just stay the way they were, why did we have to merge with this other company… etc.

        1. Observer*

          I was thinking about that. But in that case, can you imagine what it’s like to be sitting in that room worrying about all of this stuff and on top of that, is this person who is crying so much that she’s distracting the new person who has not yet learned how to pretend that it’s not happening. Shudder.

          TLDR; If you are correct a bunch of stressed out people had to sit and deal with highly emotional behavior, without getting overly emotional themselves, while trying to manage a bunch of concerning reactions of their own.

  27. Cafe au Lait*

    I’m a sensitive soul. I cry happy tears at at happy pet videos. I cry when I see sad videos. I cry tears of gratitude when something incredibly nice happens to me or someone else. I squeeze out a few tears, sniffles a few times, cough and then get back to work. Oh, and never watch sad pet videos at work.

    Here’s what I also do: excuse myself quickly. “Whoops, these are happy tears! Katherine sent me a really nice note thanking me for the help on the Llama stitching project. I’mma gonna duck out for a moment.” It’s not crying for an entire meeting.

  28. Sindy*

    This is very concerning behavior. If it was only an occasional thing then it’s understandable to tolerate it, some people just cry in response to stress but otherwise function well in their day to day. But it sounds like Vanessa’s crying is out of control and its alarming behavior.

  29. Choggy*

    I can empathize with Vanessa, but also with Tim. It’s one thing when one person is being handled with kid gloves by the team they’ve been a part of for years, it’s another to keep expecting new people to jump on board. I am sure others on the existing team feel the same but since their manager is allowing it, they have to be fine with it too. Alison has provided really good advice here, I hope the OP heeds it, for the good of the current and new teams, and Vanessa.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Accommodating Vanessa this way wouldn’t surprise me if she was going through a hard time after a recent death in the family, or was a few months from taking retirement and struggling with her mental health in the interim. Short term accommodations for life slinging especially hard at a coworker this month.

      Ten years, and the slings and arrows are lunch with your coworkers? That’s not a normal length of accommodation, or degree of needing accommodation.

      1. Anonymous for this*

        Right. I was Vanessa some years ago when my child was diagnosed with cancer. Even so, my excellent manager sat me down and said, everyone’s heart is breaking for you. Everyone understands. But everyone is also very distressed about your crying at work and it’s affecting the department’s ability to get things done. You really need to expedite going on leave. We can cut your hours in the meantime and give you work to do at home as much as possible, but…this can’t continue.

        And she was completely right.

    2. Observer*

      This is the definition of the “missing stair” phenomenon.

      And you are so right that there may very well be people on the existing team who are not so ok with it but feel like they need to be.

  30. Goncha*

    Vanessa is not an “empath” – she is not showing any concern here for how her behaviour and the demands she is making of others affects their feelings! She is someone who prioritises her own emotional reaction at the expense of everyone else. She is self-centred, overly emotional and unprofessional.

    That is not what being an “empath” means.

    1. Zap R.*

      Exactly. If I tear up at an inopportune moment, I go find a quiet place to get myself together. Weeping in a meeting is disruptive and an “empath” should get that.

    2. Distracted Librarian*

      Exactly, and thanks for saying this. Forcing people to deal with outsized emotional responses to everyday happenings is the opposite of empathetic. Here’s the hard truth: we all have emotions. At any given moment in any given workplace, someone is expending a lot of energy to manage their own emotions–and now they’re also supposed to deal with a constantly crying (or yelling–anger is also an emotion) co-worker? No, no, no.

    3. allathian*

      “She is self-centred, overly emotional and unprofessional.” QFT

      I’m definitely on Team Tim here. I’d also bet money that if Vanessa gets managed out/fired, a number of her teammates will say that they’re glad she’s gone.

    4. rusty*

      YES. Some of us feel big feelings, some of us cry much more easily than others, and I think it’s very unfair to judge anyone who ever cries at work – sometimes it can’t be helped. But this is ‘I’m an empath and so you have to deal with my feelings about your feelings!’ No.

  31. Peanut Hamper*

    She’s an empath but she only feels things that make her cry? Does it really work like that?

    (I’m not being critical, I’ve just never heard of….this. I’m not even sure how to describe it.)

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      No. It’s not. She cries in response to stress – that’s a thing! This isn’t an empathetic response.

  32. I edit everything*

    I’ll admit, I don’t understand the “empath” thing. Being highly perceptive of other people’s emotions shouldn’t automatically lead to crying–I mean, surely every team meeting or lunch doesn’t involve such intense trauma, that she’s crying because someone else is upset. What the what?
    I’m a crier, more than I want to be, and I would never expect my coworkers to deal with my emotions this way.

    1. Heidi*

      I honestly am not seeing how the bird thing matches up with the empath thing at all. She can’t be feeling the feelings of the bird because the bird is dead. Wouldn’t she be feeling the anxiety of her coworkers who are scrambling to hide the dead bird?

  33. Zap R.*

    “Empath” is not a medical diagnosis. I’m a crier myself – when something bad happens, I usually need to quickly “cry it out” before I can deal with it – so I’m sympathetic to Vanessa. However, Vanessa is at work and empath or no, she needs to find a less disruptive way to deal with this.

  34. Sandi*

    How is Vanessa as an ’empath’ any different than the average person who has emotions and empathy? Is she using the term as an excuse for her inability to contain emotions normally. Most people are able to sense the bad feelings of others yet we don’t experience sadness randomly and without reason. If she is constantly sad and emotional then she probably needs professional help to keep it out of the workplace. I work and socialize with people who have mental health issues including anxiety and depression, and I work to support them on their bad days, yet Vanessa’s behavior would cause me a lot of stress and distress. If she has been doing this for 10 years then she has no desire to fix the problem. If she won’t get help then I would be tempted to ask her to step out of meetings and if she can’t attend any meetings without crying and if she misses a lot of meetings then maybe address it as a work issue?

    I think Vanessa is likely emotionally dragging down everyone on her current team and they are supporting her because they are worried she will get a lot worse if they don’t. Who wants to work with a ticking emotional bomb? It isn’t fair to them that they have to tiptoe around her, and I think OP has lost sight of this. If her eyes get teary and moist then I don’t think that would be a problem, but if people are leaping to intercept her and running outside to hide a dead bird then it sounds like she is having a very visible emotional reaction.

    I think it is fair to cry during very emotional meetings, for example I once cried when an awful manager gave me unreasonable critical feedback. My emotions were based in frustration at my situation and I resolved it by acknowledging the tears and asking to continue and then promptly finding a job somewhere else. If the team has remained together for that long then I wonder if either Vanessa has a valuable skill-set that can’t easily be found or this is the best option they have. Either way her behavior is a problem to others.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      She might have poor emotional regulation, she might cry as a stress reaction, she might have a medical or psychological condition, it’s hard to say. But in the traditional understanding of the word empath – which to be clear, is not a clinical term – no, this is not well aligned with that.

  35. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, what if one of the new employees is a super empath? And every time Vanessa cries, the new employee cries even harder, and for longer?

    The above thought experiment is to illustrate an important thing about the missing stair, that there can be only one. This isn’t about accommodating a range of minor quirks–this is about one person seizing the power as the one you can’t reason with, that everyone else must bend to accommodate, and that won’t work once two people are trying to maintain that roll in the group. (And a typical response would be to close ranks to protect the original member, while deriding the new person for being ridiculous.)

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      As HR, whenever I have someone like OP in management who really wants to bend over backwards to care for a particular employee, my first question is “what will you do if there’s a competing accommodation?”

      Especially for this situation where there is no formal accommodation in place, that can be as minor as “this makes someone uncomfortable, and I can not look them in the face and tell them sitting next to someone crying for an entire meeting is a requirement of their job”. Because it’s not, and no ADA request would rise to the level of making them deal with that.

      People have asymmetrical needs, and sometimes those are in opposition to each other, but when you have one person taking this level of emotional labor from the rest of the team, you do not have a functional team.

  36. Anele*

    I just want to add that accommodating Vanessa is also unkind to Vanessa. How will she be able to handle future jobs if she expects that everyone will accommodate her?

    Vanessa needs to learn and practice some coping strategies, and the letter writer is preventing her from doing so.

    1. Emily*

      This is such a great point, thank you! What OP and the co-workers are doing may seem kind in the moment, but is doing nothing to help Vanessa in the long run.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Tim hit the nail on the head when he said OP wasn’t willing to talk to Vanessa as an adult. OP took exception to that, but didn’t outright disagree. OP just said that Vanessa was an adult, not that they were willing to talk to them like one.

      Tough love may not be the best answer, but I’m not even convinced what Tim is proposing is tough love. It’s setting expectations. As an adult, Vanessa should be able to engage in that dialogue. OP is absolutely infantilizing Vanessa in this situation.

    3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      YES. I’m reminded of the “we have to line up male/female at the bus stop and nobody can wear a ring on one hand if they don’t wear one on the other hand too because Jane can’t deal with asymmetry” letter.

    4. Storm in a teacup*

      Exactly! LW you may want to read up on Radical Candour. This feels very much like ruinous empathy and it’s not helping Vanessa in the long run

    5. goddessoftransitory*

      I mentioned a coworker above who’s a Vanessa variant, and I think one reason he’s still there is people are genuinely concerned he could never get another job.

  37. Ginger Cat Lady*

    “I’m an empath” doesn’t mean everyone around you has to manage your emotions for you and protect you from seeing things any more than “I’m a hugger” means all your coworkers have to let you touch their bodies whether they like it or not.
    And yes, Tim is 100% right about long standing teams and dysfunction like this. There’s a reason the “missing stair” analogy resonates so much. It’s true.
    You and your team have been tiptoeing around Vanessa for so long you can’t even see how wacky it is.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      This reminds me a lot of the “I’m an artist” excuse for being flaky–actual artists who make a living at it are usually not flaky, much less wearing their flaky as a badge of pride that proves they must have artistic talent.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Hah, my favorite was my now-ex-boyfriend’s friend telling us that he ‘didn’t have to be nice to people because he was a writer.’*

        *I know that not having stuff published doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer, but AFAIK he has not published one jot nor tittle.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Reminds me of an Anne Lamott novel where a character observes that the majority of “writers” of her acquaintance mostly slept, drank, and talked on the phone all day.

  38. Bird Lady*

    I am guilty of being the person in the office that the team cleans up a dead bird for. In my defense, I have pet parrots, support avian rescues with both time and money, and teach people how to care for their companion birds. But if the bird is breathing, I’m also the person that gets called to care for it or find it a rehabilitation site.

    On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I cried at work. At home with a glass of wine about work? Sure. But at the office? Nope.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I don’t see any issue with a team protecting a coworker from an unusual and non work related experience that they know will be difficult for them. That’s kind. The issue here (which someone articulated upthread better than I did when I had a similar thought) is that it’s unclear if they’re doing it to be kind to Vanessa, or to avoid the fallout of her emotions.

      1. Observer*

        This. But also, it seems to be pretty clear that this is *not* an “unusual” situation, but rather something they’ve learned how to head off very smoothly. Big red flag.

  39. Justin*

    That sounds jarring to everyone. I don’t know that she needs tough love but she could be encouraged to step away if she feels it coming on or something like that.

  40. Observer*

    OP, a few lines jumped out at me:

    anessa cried throughout a meeting explaining the merger. My team simply let her be, but it was clear Tim was distracted

    That’s a LOT. It’s no wonder Tim was distracted. And while your team “let her be”, I can’t imagine that this was easy for them – either they have to shut down their own empathy or they are stuck trying to process someone’s intense emotions while trying to process their own emotions.

    One of my team members stalled Vanessa in the hallway while another ran outside and moved the bird to the garbage with a shovel.

    This is a clear indicator that Vanessa’s emotions ARE presenting a problem at work and that people are putting in real effort to forestall her melt-downs. That’s an unfair burden to put on others. And while I’m sure no one is complaining, it doesn’t mean that they are ok with it. It may very well mean that they feel like they can’t say anything.

    Because when Tim pointed out ““Can you see that you can’t talk to Vanessa like an adult?” you respond that “She *is* an adult” (emphasis mine) but still don’t want to talk to her like one.

    And while you say that you think that you should deal with personality conflicts “if” they come, you’ve already pushed back on *a supervisor* who is having an issue. People almost certainly see that “I also want Vanessa to keep being Vanessa” is going to mean that people who are uncomfortable are going to be expected to work around her.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      “Because when Tim pointed out ““Can you see that you can’t talk to Vanessa like an adult?” you respond that “She *is* an adult” (emphasis mine) but still don’t want to talk to her like one.”

      That stood out to me like a blaring siren.

  41. Emily*

    If Vanessa was truly an empath, she’d be more worried about her behavior is impacting others (I’ve also yet to meet an empath who is truly an empath, but I digress). OP, Tim has seem really good insights (especially about teams that have been together a long time not always seeing dysfunction) and I hope you take what he is saying into account. Vanessa’s needs shouldn’t trump everyone else’s, and right now it seems like they are.

  42. Jodi*

    Her team ignoring Vanessa’s crying drama doesn’t mean they’re OK with it. I’d certainly ignore her crying but be inwardly rolling my eyes and wondering why her behaviour was allowed to continue for so long. I’d be happy that the new manager was finally doing something. If she needs to cry, she should be told to leave the room and stop holding others hostage to her emotional neediness.

  43. Olive*

    What are the options if Vanessa can’t or won’t stop crying? I don’t think that her behavior is fair to her team – crying throughout an entire meeting because of a merger announcement and crying during team lunches sounds like a work environment nightmare to me. But it also sounds like something very hard to police, especially since it should be fine for her to quietly shed a few tears on occasion. And even if she has coworkers who resent constantly managing her emotions, getting people to stop doing that is going to be hard. What should the realistic next steps be if having a conversation with her doesn’t result in any changes?

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      You treat it like you would any other performance issue: you describe the issue you’re seeing, you describe how it is impacting everyone’s performance, and then you lay out some guidelines about what you need to see change and a timeline for changing it.

      If you have an EAP, you can certainly mention that. And if your health insurance covers mental health issues, you can also mention that (in a very neutral way, of course).

      It’s the manager’s job to manage the “what”–we can’t have someone crying in the office all the time. It’s the employee’s job to manage the “how” part of making that change, whether it’s therapy, medication, making changes in other parts of their lives, or a combination of those things.

      And if Vanessa can’t make these changes, then you can go to a PIP and proceed as normal.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yes. At the end of the day, Vanessa might need to be in a different job. She might need to be somewhere where she can be in virtual meetings and turn her camera off, or works in a more isolated environment, or isn’t as stressed as maybe she is in this job. That’s for Vanessa to figure out.

        I think it’s a kindness to work with her as much as possible, and be patient as patient as you can, especially if she’s clearly making an effort. And if she decides to go the ADA route, handle that respectfully – but keep in mind there are even limitations there, and it’s highly unlikely that the approach as it stands would fall under ADA accommodations.

        1. Olive*

          I think it would be great if Vanessa could figure out or accept that herself with the help of her managers.

          It’s just hard to wrap my mind around firing someone because ultimately they can’t stop crying. And I don’t like working with extremely emotionally expressive people – as a coworker, I’d be one of the people rolling my eyes and wishing she’d go away. But I can see why the OP has been reluctant to manage this, because I have a hard time imagining myself as a manager telling someone that if they can’t change their annoying but mostly harmless behavior, they’re fired.

          1. BL73*

            I don’t think it’s harmless behavior if it’s making those around her feel uncomfortable or unable to effectively work with her.

            1. Harper the Other One*

              Yes, it’s similar to having a frustrated coworker who’s constantly muttering under their breath or slamming their hand on a desk. If they haven’t directed their frustration at anyone, it’s technically harmless too, but people would absolutely tiptoe around them. People wouldn’t feel that it was inappropriate to use a PIP for that, but it’s also “just” an emotional reaction that’s distressing coworkers and interfering with tasks.

            2. Clisby*

              Yes – harmless would be if she could work entirely remotely, seldom having video meetings, and get all her work done satisfactorily. In that case, nobody would even know she’s crying off and on all day. It’s when everybody else has to put up with this that it becomes … not harmless.

          2. Eldritch Office Worker*

            It’s not harmless if it’s distracting from work or making other people sit in discomfort. I get what you’re saying, and emotional issues are always difficult to manage, but it’s really not that much different than if she was screaming or vomiting or doing other expressive actions that make the people around her uncomfortable and unable to work. It is still, at the end of the day, a performance issue in this particular role.

          3. Dust Bunny*

            It’s not mostly harmless if it’s causing problems for other people, though, and the OP can’t know that it’s not if she’s demonstrated that she’s unwilling to address it.

          4. Observer*

            because I have a hard time imagining myself as a manager telling someone that if they can’t change their annoying but mostly harmless behavior, they’re fired.

            This is the key to the problem. The OP is having the same problem. But that problem only exists because the OP is ignoring the fact that Vanessa’s behavior is actually NOT harmless.

  44. Ama*

    I think this may be one of those situations where OP initially agreed to accommodate Vanessa because how often can someone cry at work (and it sounds like it first manifested when she received feedback so OP may have been thinking it would largely be limited to those situations), but when it turned out Vanessa cries frequently and in a lot of different situations, OP thought she had to keep tolerating it because she already said she would. (I haven’t dealt with this with crying, but I definitely fell into this trap as a new manager where I gave a report approval to do something thinking it would be maybe a few times a year and had to claw it back when it turned out to be a few times a week.)

    It isn’t a fun conversation, but it is okay to go back to Vanessa and say “I should have probably said something earlier, but the crying is happening more frequently than I thought it would when we first talked about it and we need to find better ways of handling it other than having you regularly sit through staff meetings with tears running down your face.”

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Yep, if this is the case, it’s perfectly okay to say that something had previously been approved is now problematic because it’s happening far more often than originally anticipated.

      This is a thing that happens, and good managers follow up on this. Bad managers don’t and hope it goes away and instead it ends up festering and becoming a bigger problem.

    2. El l*

      Yeah, I think that’s probably what happened – the first time OP thought “Everyone has bad days”, and by time #10 they’d lost the chance to address the pattern because, consistency.

      Having Tim and this merger is a chance to break this cycle. Maybe not tough love, but certainly a call to action is needed.

  45. DramaQ*

    I am someone who is programmed to cry at the drop of a hat. I angry cry, scared cry, sad cry. Strangely I do not happy cry. The thing is I know that is not going to help me in the workplace and I’ve learned to manage it. The thought that my co-workers would feel the need to go shovel a bird off a sidewalk lest I disrupt the entire meeting is mind boggling to me. That is someone who needs professional help. Tim is correct the letter writer has been trained by Vanessa to view this as normal at the expense of the rest of his team. Just because the rest of them go along with it doesn’t mean they like it and I wouldn’t be shocked if they are all secretly hoping that the merger will result in exactly what Tim wants to do and if not will start job hunting. Tim was not insensitive he asked the right questions about ADA accommodations to determine what path of action he should take. I would not be shocked if the letter writer ended up being cut along with Vannessa after awhile because his sense of normalcy is way off. Being neurodivergent myself I certainly appreciate people who recognize that and will work with me but at the same time I have no right to hold everyone else hostage. I have to be capable and willing of meeting my fellow adults in the middle.

  46. RagingADHD*

    I always think of crying at work as the emotional equivalent of a physical symptom like throwing up.

    Anybody might have an episode where they throw up at work for some reason. It’s best if they can excuse themselves to the bathroom first, but if it really hit them out of the blue, they might not make it and that shouldn’t reflect badly on them.

    If they have some kind of chronic situation like morning sickness, they probably need an accommodation so everyone understands that they might have to step out of a meeting or conversation suddenly. Again, this shouldn’t reflect badly on them.

    But nobody would think it was okay for a team member to *routinely* throw up at their desk, in meetings, or at a team lunch, several times a week, and expect everyone else on the team to ignore it. That team member needs to show some courtesy and self-awareness. Maybe they need to go to the doctor. But you can’t have a healthy environment if all but one of the team members have to sit through these episodes with their (metaphorical) fingers in their ears, going “la, la, la, nothing’s happening” when something definitely is happening.

    1. Rainbow Stripe Dress*

      This is such a thoughtful comparison! Will definitely use it in conversation.