Women Who Cry at Work Need to Know These Five Things

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Crying at work is not always a big problem, researchers have found, but in the wrong situation, it can be a reputation-killer.

“If you are a woman who cries at work, paying attention to the context and the emotions of observers could save your career,” according to the Academy of Management Discoveries article, “How Observers Assess Women Who Cry in Professional Work Contexts.”

Researchers Kimberly Elsbach and Beth Bechky, both of the University of California, Davis, interviewed 65 full-time managers and professionals (41 women, 24 men) in various industries in Northern California, all of whom said they had not cried at work themselves. Elsbach and Bechky collected 52 anecdotes from the men and 48 from women, about their reactions to female colleagues crying at work.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  1. Men and women who see women crying at work react the same way. “In terms of observing crying, we were pretty surprised at how little difference there was among men and women and how they reacted to crying. Women were just as hard on criers as men. They were just as uncomfortable in seeing crying as men,” Elsbach said.

  2. If you cry, it might not hurt your reputation if coworkers think you are dealing with “difficult personal issues” or “a tough situation at work.” The researchers found that “crying in a heated meeting is much more damaging to a woman’s reputation than crying over a death in the family.”

  3. Otherwise, if you cry, it hurts your reputation because coworkers may think you are weak, unprofessional or manipulative. “Women whose crying interfered with reception and discussion of feedback (an important task in the performance review) were often perceived as manipulative,” the authors wrote. But “women who continued to cry, in public areas, after leaving a critical performance evaluation (… which may have made others feel awkward, but was less disruptive to a specific work task) were typically evaluated as ‘weak,’ but not as ‘manipulative.’” Further, women who cried privately after a negative performance review, and did not prevent feedback from being given, were seen as being “in a tough situation in which crying was to be expected.” Men, more often than women, though, “felt that women were crying on purpose,” Elsbach said.

  4. If you cannot stop crying, leave. Do not disrupt work. “If you can’t control the crying, then you should remove yourself from a public situation. Because in almost every case, the negative attributions are tied to disrupting the work of others,” Elsbach said. “The duration of the crying and the publicness of the crying both contribute to the disrupting of work of others.”

  5. Apologize to people who saw you cry and make it clear you tried to stop. It might help counter false perceptions that you were being manipulative.

Context is key, one respondent explained in the article: “My perception of crying would depend on the totality of the situation. You know, who was there, what work was being done, whether it was a normal work situation or something unusual. If it was out in the open or in a private office. All those kinds of things.” (See below for more reactions to women crying at work.)

“In general, in Western society, and certainly in the U.S., there’s a strong socialization where boys learn on the playground and at school not to cry. And by the time they’re young adults, they have mastered that skill. They only cry in very extreme situations. In most situations, they don’t have to think about not crying. It just doesn’t happen,” Elsbach said. “Whereas girls, to a large extent, are not socialized to suppress crying. They never develop that skill. Like many skills, if you don’t learn them as a child, it’s much harder to learn them as an adult. We talked to women who cried for another study, and they told us that they would try anything to be able to control crying, but none of them could. Once they felt themselves starting to cry, there was nothing they could do to stop it. They just had no control over it.”

“Men and women feel the same things at work. They just express them in different ways,” she said.

Elsbach said the findings mean that “managers need to understand that crying is just another way to express frustration and anger, which are very common emotions to feel at work. And it doesn’t mean anything differently than someone who may be raising their voice in anger at a meeting.”

The authors noted that many respondents felt uncomfortable around crying coworkers. The respondents, many of whom were managers, “said that they ‘didn’t know what to do’ when an employee cried, despite noting that crying was expected in some common situations, such as performance reviews. Clearly, organizations can provide better training for managers facing these common situations, such as offering ideas for how managers could intervene in crying events to help their employees accept feedback and return to work.”

Business leaders can also add private areas in their workplaces, Elsbach said. The most important thing a woman crying at work can do is leave public situations, “but lots of times, there’s no place to go. Even the bathroom can be difficult and not have privacy.” Private rooms or spaces without windows, or with windows and blinds, “might provide an opportunity for people to get their emotions under control and not interrupt the work of others. Getting a person out of the public work areas solved a lot of problems.”

Elsbach said they focused on women crying at work because they found relatively few such instances among men. The authors cited research that noted, “Women cry more frequently, for more reasons, and in more contexts than men in all countries where relevant data have been collected.”

General comments about crying, from managers and professionals

Man: “In a situation like death in the family or major illness, I think it’s expected that one would cry. I think in those cases it’s really seen as normal. Unless, of course, it goes on and on, and really interferes with other people getting their work done. But most times, it’s fine.”

Woman: “The most common situation that I have seen at work is crying due to some personal crisis, like a death in the family, or your dog died, something like that. In those cases, most women I’ve seen just cry with a friend, maybe in their cube or in the bathroom. I think that’s pretty normal. It’s not unexpected and it doesn’t really bother anyone if it’s not in the middle of the office or in a meeting.”

Woman: “Usually, if I see someone crying … I find it helpful if they tell me why they are crying. Like, if I saw someone crying in the bathroom, and they just said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m having a bad day, my Dad is sick.’ That would really be helpful … because then I can comfort them and I don’t feel so awkward.”

Woman: “I expect employees to cry if the feedback is pretty negative, but I don’t like it when the crying is excessive and just stops the meeting … It almost makes me feel like they are trying to get out of hearing the criticism, which is not in their best interest.”

Man: “If someone starts crying in a performance review, I usually ask them if they want to take a minute to compose themselves, or if they need a break. I think it’s OK if they take a few minutes, or even go to the bathroom and then come back and we can get on with the review. I am completely fine with that. What I don’t like … is when someone does not want to take a break and keeps crying and even arguing with me about the feedback. They are never going to get anything out of the review that way. … If I ask you if you need to take a break, take it!”

Man: “I think crying because you are having to meet a deadline, or stay late to finish up some work that is super critical … shouldn’t happen at a professional level. I mean, we all should expect to do that kind of work.”

Man: “I think the worst place to cry is when you’re in problem-solving mode, like in a critical situation … If you’re in a situation like that, and you start crying, I think that’s probably the least acceptable. I think my reaction to that would be that we need to get her out of the room so we can keep moving, especially if it’s a really big sort of critical issue.”

Man: “If you’re in a group setting at a meeting where you were called on the carpet on something that maybe you were wrong about … and if you break down and cry at that moment … that would be detrimental to your future at the company just because … you would be seen as weak … If you want get promoted to higher levels, you have to have that strong backbone about you, and weakness just doesn’t cut it.”

Woman: “I think that women need to just be very calm and if they’re told ‘We really have got to get our numbers up, and if we don’t we need to do this,’ or those kinds of things, you don’t want to be teary about it. I think you just need to kind of hang on to your emotions until you get out of the meeting.”

“She’s dealing with difficult personal issues.”

Man: “As I was meeting her, going into her office, I could see she was crying and trying to hide it, but it was too much for her. I could tell she was sad, and when I noticed, I asked what was wrong. She told me about [the family member] being diagnosed with cancer. … It was completely understandable in that situation.”

Woman, about a colleague who cried during a training session for employees who might take voluntary layoffs: “Our director decided that he wanted also to provide us with training about how to look for a job … There was a group of about 10 to 15 of us that were going through this training. And I was sitting next to my manager at the time. She kind of started crying … She was trying to hold it. She wasn’t trying to cry and she was just not able to stop, and so she excused herself very quickly and left the room … She was kind of going through a rough time because she had just notified us she was three or four months pregnant and had just switched over to this position because she felt it was a more stable organization. So, all these things had happened. It was a reasonable response. I mean definitely, especially in her situation, it was reasonable and so it didn’t affect my perception of her.”

“She’s dealing with a tough situation at work.”

Man: “Lots of people were getting laid off, and there were major budget cuts being made, and [she] was expecting to be promoted to a manager position with a pay raise, but you know, they just couldn’t do it. … And I saw her when she came back from talking to her boss about it, and she was crying in her cubicle. I know she was really expecting that promotion, so it was understandable that she was upset.”

Woman: “This project was high focus. Everybody in the company expected it to roll off without a hitch or without a glitch and it just had to be done … She asked for a little bit of help from us and then she called the director to find out something. At that point she found out that he had gone home and she just couldn’t believe he had gone home. She was like, ‘What? He’s gone home?’ Then you saw her kind of get upset and she went to the bathroom and she came back out and she just sort of broke down and started crying because … I guess she just felt that she was dumped on. … I was sort of uncomfortable with it. I didn’t think she should get that upset. … It was understandable, given how much pressure she was under. She was ultimately very professional … I think she dealt with it effectively and it didn’t slow down the project.”

“She’s weak.”

Woman: “She was just bawling out in the open work area, and it was really awkward for everyone around her. We didn’t really know what to do … We knew that she had gone in for her [performance] review, so we guessed why she was crying, but I mean. . . it was excessive. … I thought she was overly emotional to go on like that. I mean, she could have gone home or at least to the bathroom if it was that bad.”

Woman, about asking a colleague to help set up a last-minute meeting: “I am generally polite and diplomatic at work. I asked her for help. I may have been a bit abrupt because I was in a hurry. But she starting crying. I was shocked. … I was aggravated. … I thought, maybe this woman was one of those people who cry a lot, I don’t know. … I didn’t make her cry, people choose that. She chose that. She was just too emotional for that situation. She should have been able to handle that situation.”

“She’s unprofessional.”

Woman, about a new staffer who had relocated and cried for hours one day: “She just kept saying that she missed her family and she didn’t have any friends here. … That one really stuck with me because it was such overkill. I mean, grow up! It was the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever seen. I wished she would have just left rather than crying in front of all of us. … and we didn’t know her, so it was really awkward.”

Woman: “She was talking about a specific project that we were working on and … she had the floor, you know, it wasn’t like people were interrupting her, but they were asking tough questions. … And then she was like, ‘Oh, oh, oh, wait,’ and then she just put her fist in her mouth and started crying. … I think it’s unprofessional. I mean, I don’t think that women need to become men … and, like, become completely nonemotional, but I think that the expectation is out there anyway, that if you are … especially somebody higher up, she was in administration … I think for her, who’s been doing it for 25, 30 years, that she should maybe have gotten it by now.”

“She’s manipulative.”

Man: “Her boss came out to her desk and told her he needed her to redo a bunch of analyses before a meeting the next day. We all heard him telling her, because he’s pretty loud. She just said, OK, but then when he left, she started crying and saying to [a coworker] that it wasn’t fair, and that she had too much to do already, and that she’d be there several hours finishing this. ... Of course, [the coworker] said she would help her out. … I remember thinking, ‘It’s not that bad.’ I mean, everyone gets asked to stay late and do work sometimes. … It was really not fair of her to push that on [the coworker]. I thought it was really manipulative of her to make everyone feel bad by crying.”

Woman, about how she and a colleague gave a warning to a subordinate who was routinely absent (and then dramatically broke down): “I’m really sorry, I sense that this is upsetting you, and we can see if we need to reschedule, but we have something we need to discuss and this is pretty serious, and I don’t want to minimize [it].” The woman said her colleague was angry about the subordinate crying, and had observed, “This is just a diversionary tactic, she’s turning on the waterworks … thinking we’ll feel sorry for her.”

Watch a video about women who cry at work.