There’s more and more media coverage and management literature today about the importance of authenticity at work. There’s a book and an accompanying TEDx talk called “Bring Your Whole Self to Work” by a fellow named Mike Robbins, and a completely separate TED talk called “Why You Should Bring Your Whole Self to Work” by Dan Clay. Generation by generation, people are learning to be more of who they are, and not to hide themselves.
Occasionally, though, one person’s authenticity becomes another person’s headache, and one of the most straightforward examples of this is when a workplace colleague or subordinate starts to cry on the job. I was happy to be interviewed by Liz Alterman, who writes for the Muse on workplace and career issues, on how to cope with a crying subordinate. Here’s the piece.
From sitting in the dunk tank at the company picnic to firing a member of your team, managers face plenty of situations they’d rather avoid. One fairly common but nevertheless uncomfortable scenario is watching as a direct report dissolves into tears in front of you.
If you’re one of those rare bosses who instinctively knows how to handle a crying employee with grace and without fumbling, congratulations! Everyone else: You’re not alone. Plenty of managers feel awkward and uneasy when an employee starts crying at work—and unfortunately you’re probably going to face moments like this over the course of your career as a boss.
In the interest of leading with compassion and creating a safe space for your direct reports to be themselves, here are some ways you can handle the situation that will make you and your employee feel better and allow you both to move forward without any lingering embarrassment on either side.
Comfort Rather Than Cringe
Instead of continuing on as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening, treat the person with empathy.
Management consultant, executive coach, and facilitator Liz Kislik, of Liz Kislik Associates, suggests treating crying much the way you would if an employee suddenly became ill in front of you.
“You’d ask ‘Are you all right? Do you need a minute?’” she says. And “let them say what they need to say.” If it happens in a group setting, pull them aside into a private area to see how they’re doing.
If you’re in your office or a conference room, it’s always best to have a box of tissues at the ready and to offer the person a glass of water. Physical contact, like a hug or pat on the shoulder, isn’t necessary and may make the situation more awkward depending on the relationship. Often just being respectful and sensitive is enough.
You can also volunteer to step out for a moment so the employee can collect themselves, or ask if they’d like to leave and continue at a later time. “They may say, ‘No, just give me a second,’ and then just go with it,” says Kislik.
There may be a time when ignoring a crying employee seems like the more sensitive route to take. For example, if you’re in a meeting and it’s obvious the person is trying to hide that they’re tearing up, it may make sense to keep going rather than skid to a sudden stop. If this seems appropriate in the moment, go with it as long as the employee is able to quickly recover. If not, suggest a short break without drawing attention to the person.
Express Concern, But Don’t Pry
In an effort to be supportive, you may try to get to the source of their sadness. But Kislik cautions, “Avoid assuming that you know all the background. Even if you heard something from someone else, don’t assume you know the details.”
It’s natural to show concern, but don’t throw out open-ended questions like “What’s going on?” or “What’s this all about?” However, you can ask, “Is there anything you’d want me to know?” or “How can I help?” to open the door for them, should they want to share more information. Kislik adds that as a manager you have no need to know details unless the issue is directly impacting the person’s work or performance, so respect their privacy and show compassion instead.
Consider Your Role
It’s possible that their tears are work-related, or even that something you said or did directly caused them to get upset. While this may be upsetting to hear, don’t beat yourself up—but rather consider it a growth opportunity for both of you.
For example, if you offered honest (but maybe harsh) feedback on their work, ask yourself if you delivered it kindly and constructively or if there was a better way you could have said it. Apologize if you were in the wrong, and let the person know you’ll do things differently next time.
Or let’s say they’re upset about working long hours. Take the time to hear their concerns and try to come up with a solution that relieves some of the burden, whether it’s letting them work from home one day a week or pushing back some deadlines.
Of course, it’s not always going to be possible to grant their wishes, so if you find yourself without a solution, the best thing to do is to continue to listen to them and be sympathetic. Even just letting them air their grievances can do wonders for their mood and your relationship.
The key is to work together so that your employee feels supported and heard. Use this opportunity to understand their needs and perspective so that you can better communicate with one another and resolve what’s bothering them.
Follow Up and Move Forward
Afterward, check in on your employee privately. If the person was upset in the morning, follow up after lunch or before either of you leaves for the day. If it happened late in the afternoon, you might allow them to settle into the next work day and then make sure they’re off to a better start that morning. Timeliness is key here, as waiting a week to check in can come off as thoughtless or remind the employee of the awkward moment they’re trying to forget.
If they’ve confided in you about a personal situation, be sure to ask about it, but don’t make it a regular talking point or pry too much. You can ask, “How is your aunt doing?” says Kislik. “But there’s no need to inquire about it every day as if the two of you must discuss it at the top of your to-do list.” Chances are the person probably doesn’t want to talk about it at length or let it affect their day-to-day work relationships.
If the issue was work-related, you might need to wait a bit longer to see if the changes you’ve implemented have made things easier. In that case, you could check in as part of your regular one-on-one, in a neutral, professional way: “How is your new schedule working out?”
Regardless, by seamlessly returning to business as usual while still being empathetic, you make it easy for you and your direct report (and the rest of your team) to refocus and move past the moment.
While it’s never easy to see someone crying at work—especially a direct report—remaining calm can help your employee gather themself more quickly. And helping that person through an uncomfortable situation graciously and professionally will go a long way in strengthening your relationship for the future.