Responding to a Crying Employee

Mark Sagor

No Crying in BaseballLet’s begin with the iconic image of Tom Hanks as the exasperated coach of a woman’s baseball team in the movie A League of Their Own, declaring “There’s no crying in baseball!”

This image resonates for so many men because, let’s be honest here, some of us are flummoxed by tears and uncertain about how to respond to a person who is crying, especially in a work environment.

And despite the unwritten corporate rule that you shouldn’t cry at work, tears continue to  rain down at workplaces everywhere.

According to the neurologist William Frey, women are more likely to cry (in or out of the workplace), averaging 5.3 episodes of crying per month compared to men’s 1.4 episodes. Dr. Frey found that 41% of woman admitted crying at work in the previous year compared to 9% of men.

In other words, if you are a supervisor there’s a good chance you will be called upon to respond to a crying employee.

So what should you do if it happens?

Most importantly, make sure any discomfort you may experience doesn’t dictate your response.

  • Don’t avoid a weeping employee, engage them keeping in mind that your obligation is to offer availability not therapy.
  • Don’t tell them that their emotionality at work is inappropriate. It’s safe to assume they already know that.
  • Don’t try to get them to stop crying.
  • Don’t focus your attention on the medium (they are crying) but on the message (they are upset)

In perfect accord with Murphy’s law, you may be confronted with an emotional situation just as you are setting off for an important meeting. No worries. Just express your concern by acknowledging the situation and schedule some time to talk later. This is comforting and communicates respect.

When you talk with a crying employee:

  • Do offer the person a choice about when to have a conversation (“Is this a good time to talk or would you like to schedule some time to talk later?”)
  • Do go to a private place (and bring the tissues).
  • Do let them talk.
  • Do focus on how you can be helpful.
  • Do focus your help on work-related matters (even if it’s a personal issue you may be able to identify helpful adjustments you can make at work.)

When faced with a crying employee the key is to be yourself (which means you don’t need to act like a therapist) and respond with authentic concern and a genuine interest in helping.

Most of the time this kind of thoughtful response by a supervisor is all that is required to support an employee who is having a difficult moment and help get everyone back to business.

When it’s not, you can remind the employee that the EAP is a free and confidential benefit the company provides to help with virtually any problem.