Tears — the actual wet things that pop out of ducts like salty groundhogs looking for their shadow — are fairly polite at first. They knock, in their trademark style, so that you know they are coming. One by one. And then, as quickly as a high school party can get out of hand, tears erupt in a crowd of drips, hiccups and, if you are a very lucky crier, snot.
The old guard used to say that there is no place for crying in the workplace. Yet because we’re humans with eyes that cry, often we have no choice. A paradox.
In 2016, when open office floor plans are popular for the sake of democratic transparency, dress codes are casual in the name of camaraderie and we are expected to be Authentic, it’s even more confusing. Colleagues become friends and therapists because we essentially live in the office. Work comes home with us. When it doesn’t, and we’re offline but on Instagram scrolling through our feed, there is Janet from accounting holding up her dog. “Hey girl!” you might write, because you feel like you know her life. We should be able to cry freely if need be under these circumstances, right? With no judgement?
Not so much.
“The most dangerous offices are the ones that appear to be relaxed,” says Kelly Cutrone, founder of People’s Revolution and author of If You Have to Cry, Go Outside. I had just finished saying to her almost exactly what I wrote above. “Lines get blurred, but make no mistake: all companies have a bottom line. When it comes to [how we perceive others in the workplace] nothing has changed, really.”
She, along with three other women I spoke with on this matter (an HR expert, an executive/business coach and a labor rights lawyer), all seemed to agree that despite the liberal, progressive nature of many young companies, people can and will still judge.
“People are making judgement calls and decisions [about] you all day long, even if it’s not the core truth of your personality,” says Ann Mehl, Executive and Business Coach. “They are judging how you dress, how you act. That hasn’t changed much.”
Neither has the old standby for how to deal with a workplace cry. Per the title of Cutrone’s book, all of the professionals I spoke with said the best thing is to go outside (or find a place to collect and re-center yourself) and once composed, try to communicate your needs — whether that’s taking a few minutes or the rest of the day off.
“Appreciate that people don’t always know what to do when someone cries. You don’t want to burden your colleagues. In the same way that you wouldn’t leave your lunch on someone else’s desk, mind the overflow and ripple effect of your emotions. Keep healthy boundaries,” says Mehl. She spoke about this in terms of those who may be uncomfortable by your crying and, conversely, those who want to help. “Be mindful of compassionate caregivers so that you don’t take over their afternoon.”
We can’t control other’s judgements. We can control how we handle a human reaction.
All of the women interviewed, including Regina E. Faul, partner in the Labor & Employment Practice at Phillips Nizer LLP, stressed that you have a right to excuse yourself. Tears may happen, whether they be work-related or because of a personal situation. It’s up to the employee to communicate what she or he needs.
“Ask your supervisor, ‘May I take 10 minutes?'” says Cutrone. “If you had a bloody nose you wouldn’t sit there in the meeting until it ended, you’d take care of yourself.” If you need the entire day off, do so. The goal is to be a good employee, which means knowing yourself while considering the office environment.
Another thing each said: It is part of your manager’s responsibility to make sure you’re okay.
Kathryn Kerge, HR Expert and Founder of Kathryn Kerge Consulting, says that managers need to ask themselves, “Are we arming employees with tools and support so that they know where to direct emotions?”
She clarified that when it comes to “support,” yes, having a manager or HR partner who listens and gives advice is important in terms of fostering a caring culture. But she also stressed that support means providing employees (through training, coaching, advisement) with the tools necessary to navigate their work situation more effectively.
“When there is emotion in the workplace,” says Kerge, “and it’s because the employee doesn’t know how to handle a tough work dynamic, the role of the manager is to support the employee by helping that person develop skills to handle these situations more effectively.”
Ann Mehl says she’d advise a manger to say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you’re upset. Perhaps we might grab a coffee or take a quick walk outside.”
If you’re a manager reading this going, “But what if I’m busy as hell??”
Per Mehl, say, “I’m committed to another meeting shortly so I’d prefer to connect on this again with you when I’m more attentive. Are you available later?”
Just don’t hug them.
“Avoid touching at all costs,” says Regina E. Faul. “Whether you think it’s welcome or not.”
If that sounds cold, remember that the office, no matter how relaxed yours may be, is still a professional setting. That doesn’t mean we act like robots or expect others to, either. Each woman I spoke to recalled a time (or times) at the office where she herself cried. “Modern offices aren’t so much about an open format to cry freely in the workplace,” says Faul, “as they are about having our emotions and feelings be recognized. And being caring and empathetic in return.”
There you have it. Keep tissues at your desk just in case, and let your colleagues and subordinates know that they’re welcome to one.