Pretty Much Everybody Cries at Work

It can be mortifying, but here are some tips to handle a crying episode gracefully—without feeling ashamed about it.

An employee crying at work.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thought Catalog on Unsplash and Thinkstock.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

If you’ve ever cried at work, you probably felt mortified—and you might not have realized how far from alone you are. While we tend to think tears have no place in an office, the reality is that a lot of people cry at work. That shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Work can be frustrating, and it’s often full of disappointments and strong emotions, and many people are deeply emotionally invested in their careers. But we’ve also been taught that “professionalism” means not showing certain types of emotions, and tearing up can feel at odds with the calm, polished image most people want to present.

Here’s one person who wrote into my workplace advice column, wondering how to recover professionally after crying in front of her boss:

Our entire team is overworked. We have too many projects and are over capacity. Management recognizes this and is working to bring on new hires, plus constantly thanking us for all our work. I have been flagging my workload for my supervisor every week. She is empathetic and keeps trying to pull things off my plate, but until we hire new staff, it is what it is.

Last week, a mistake was made on a project that had serious ramifications. I should have caught the mistake, but was moving so quickly and buried under the volume of work that I didn’t. No one blames me, but I still feel horrible.

In a check-in with my boss this week, I broke down. She was taken aback and tried to be as understanding as she could—apologetic for my work load, trying to come up with a plan to relieve my capacity, etc. But I feel awful. It was unprofessional, and I think shows that I am not capable to lead and/or handle this volume of work. How do I move forward from this?

That uncertainty about how to recover professionally after crying is a common worry for people. Here’s another:

I cried in front of my boss during our one-on-one weekly meeting yesterday. I got some feedback on what I need to do to improve and was told I’m not where she wants me yet after two weeks of fairly neutral feedback but a growing sense that I was stressing her out.

I haven’t had this type of feedback very often in my past, since I’m usually good at my job, but it has happened. I’ve never cried before though. I’ve just gotten quiet, nodded, taken notes and thought about it on my own later.

But yesterday, I just started crying and couldn’t stop. I think it was almost relief just to know what they want of me, combined with a bit of surprise and fear. I know I should have excused myself or bit my lip. I feel like she was kind, but it is still an awkward position to put someone in and I don’t want it to reflect badly on me in the future (if at all possible).

Considering I don’t have a time machine, should I apologize to my boss or would she probably be just as happy to pretend the tears never happened?

Most bosses do understand that emotions can run high at work and are heightened even further by stress. While it’s true that you don’t want to be tearing up every time you get feedback, a one-time slip into teariness isn’t going to destroy your reputation. That said, it’s smart to acknowledge it rather than trying to pretend it never happened. In the moment, you can say something like, “I’m sorry, I’m feeling pretty stressed about this. But I want to continue talking.” Or “This is hitting me hard for some reason. Would you mind if I stepped out for a minute to get a drink of water?”

If you didn’t address it in the moment, later on you can say something like, “I’m a little embarrassed that I had such a strong reaction yesterday, and I hope you’ll excuse it. I want you to know that I really appreciate the conversation and I’m thinking through what we talked about.” That last part is important so that your boss doesn’t worry that you didn’t fully take in whatever the conversation was about or that she’ll always need to brace for tears when raising sensitive topics with you. A decent boss will appreciate you addressing it this way, and then you can put it behind you and go on as if it hadn’t occurred.

It is true, though, that chronic crying at work can be a real problem, because it can be disruptive and make people hesitant to bring up anything difficult with the crier. Here’s an account of that from the manager’s side:

I have an employee who cries very often (more than once a week). Any time any small thing happens that she perceives as a slight or that doesn’t go her way, she starts crying and talks about how wronged she is. Even in neutral staff meetings where we are discussing seemingly inconsequential things, this is a nearly constant problem. It’s causing other workers to feel manipulated and bullied. I’ve tried every response I can think of, and I have probably been overly patient with what has now become a serious disruption to doing business.

Unlike the previous examples, this person’s crying is getting in the way of the normal course of business. In a case like this, the manager should focus less on professionalism and more on the ways the crying is affecting the work. For example: “When you react so strongly so often, it makes it difficult for us to move forward with our work. What can you do so that your response doesn’t get in the way of the work we need to do?” There’s also a point where it’s reasonable to consider “calm and professional demeanor” a job requirement like any other.

But that’s an extreme example. For the vast majority of people who cry at work, it’s a rare thing, not a weekly occurrence. And in those cases, the kindest course of action for a manager is to accept that we’re human and sometimes tears happen. It’s okay to kindly say, “I can see you’re upset. Would you like me to give you a few minutes?” Or you can do what this letter writer’s boss did:

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