Crying At Work May Be Acceptable, But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Do It

In the first week that I started a new job a colleague, and now good friend, introduced herself and proceeded to share all the insider knowledge she thought I would need in order to get settled. Part of this informal orientation was a hand drawn map (replicated below) which outlined the proximity of our office to the two most important bathroom stalls in the building – the smoking stall and the crying stall. I laughed it off, albeit a little nervously, and didn’t think of the map again until it was brought up 12 months later during a Lean In book club.

Turns out that most of the women knew the same insider knowledge that I did. In fact, hysterically laughing about all the other great spots around the office where you can go and shed a tear and scream like no-one’s listening. What happened next was a lengthy discussion as to whether it is okay to cry at work. In Lean In Sandberg is pro-tears. She argues that sharing a tear with a colleague in an intimate setting can foster a stronger bond between each other. Valid. But that is a gamble that the person you are crying in front of is not going to have a judgemental reaction to your tears, which still leaves you in an incredibly vulnerable position.

I believe that it is not okay to cry in front of colleagues or clients at work. I am not saying that people are exempt to emotional reactions the minute the clock strikes 9 am, nor should they suppress them. I am saying that tears, in the same way aggression, should be taken out in a private setting. We spend upwards of 40 hours a week at work. People are not immune to harsh criticism, unfair treatment or a less than brilliant performance review. But take it outside.

Crying is a reaction to stress and frustration. An emotional reset valve. But for many people on the receiving end of a teary colleague, it makes them feel uncomfortable. Some people rush to help and diffuse the situation, others cast judgement that they are out of control. Truth is we never really know who is prone to which reaction. Although Sandberg argues that tears can strengthen the bond between people in moments of vulnerability. I would challenge that it is entirely up to the relationship between the two people. For instance, if you break down in front of a client who is relying on you to do wonders for their business, would they hold the same level of sympathy if you broke down about something? Probably not.

Strong emotions and good judgement rarely go hand in hand. Tears, just like temper tantrums do not facilitate functional communication. Although a good cry feels good like a coming to ease but rational decisions are not made in the midst of free flowing tears. By making decisions in a calm state, you are likely to process more information to make better informed and rational decisions.

The reality is some people just see crying at work as a weakness in character. This is true at varying levels across different industries. By giving someone a reason to think you are weak, you are giving them upper hand in an situation. Just like presentation skills are important, as is the way we speak clearly and exercise proper annunciation – the sum of these things create the way we are perceived by others. Losing it at work unravels these good habits.

Its often been suggested that to stop yourself from tearing up you politely excuse yourself from the situation, take a walk and drink a glass of water. Or if you cannot get out quick enough to speak to the trigger that set you off such as “what you said by x has disturbed me, can you explain why you said that.” For me, I take a bottle of water with some apple cider vinegar in it and take a walk outside. The air is not as fresh in the ‘crying stall’.

What do you think? Is crying at work in front of people okay? Is a different story if a man or a woman wells up? What about if a manager or an employee sheds a tear? Let us know in the comments.