Waterworks and the Workplace: Responding to a Crying Coworker

I saw the tears welling up in my co-worker’s eyes and the corners of her mouth slightly turn downward as she described a tough meeting with her supervisor. She scurried quickly from the hallway to a corner of my office, a corner that couldn’t be seen by co-workers passing by, and began to cry. I didn’t think much of it knowing that my colleague just needed to let it out so she could get on with her day.

What I didn’t realize was that my co-worker may have avoided some serious consequences for her brief bout of waterworks. Recent research has found that women who cry during a meeting at work may be viewed as weak or unprofessional. The problem may be that co-workers innately want to help the crier, but may feel conflicted because providing emotional support is not part of the job. And then the judgment kicks in.

To which I say: Really? All that judgment for a common human emotional response?

True, thought leaders like Daniel Goleman praise emotional intelligence in the workplace, especially for leaders. Emotional regulation helps leaders keep cool and levelheaded as they navigate their way through challenges, motivating others to keep the course. But, at the same time, being able to perceive and relate to emotions is just as relevant. In other words, keeping your cool may be equally as important as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

I am not saying that we should encourage folks to weep their way through every weekly staff meeting and that workplaces should be emotional refuges. But an occasional tear or two after a tough period of crazy deadlines, insane work hours or a big failure shouldn’t have big judgment-filled consequences.

If you find yourself faced with a crying co-worker, here’s what I recommend:

  • First of all, recognize that you don’t need to do anything. Hand her a box of tissues and let her get it all out. If you feel uncomfortable, just tell her that you will give her some privacy and then go take a lap around the office.
  • If it’s during a meeting, you may want to suggest that she take a short break or ask the meeting facilitator to take a break.
  • If it seems appropriate and your company offers an employee assistance program, refer her to it. Many companies offer this benefit so that employees can vent work frustrations with an on-demand counselor for 20 minutes or so.
  • And if your co-worker shares any information that indicates significant work problems, you probably should refer her to human resources for additional assistance. Don’t get wrapped up in it.

Most importantly, pay attention to what you think and how you react during the situation. Women can be some of the harshest critics of other women at work, so let’s do what we can to stop the judgment and create emotionally supportive workplaces.

If your workplace or you are doing anything to support emotional wellbeing in your workplace, we would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Marcella Gonsalves is wife, mom, program planner, writer, teacher, coach and people developer.  When she is not helping people or organizations achieve their goals, she loves to drink a good espresso, talk about nutrition, or even take a kickboxing class or two. She has a diverse educational background with a bachelor of arts in journalism, master of public health and is nearly finished with a doctorate in educational leadership and management. Check out her LinkedIn profile for more details.

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