The Art and Science of Crying at Work

Sometimes, work sucks. Sometimes it sucks so much that you cry. However, showing vulnerability in front of your coworkers can potentially make work suck even more. This week, we offer tips on how to avoid that.

Know when it's okay to cry.

Experts I talked to agreed that crying at work is something you should try to avoid. But some situations are more acceptable than others. Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti-9-to-5 Guide, told me about a couple of these: personal tragedy, and heartwarming accomplishment. She explains,

Only a callous tool would fault you for crying at work after hearing devastating news about someone you love being hurt in a horrible accident, getting a grave medical diagnosis or dying. But let's assume you haven't suffered a personal tragedy. You can still pull off tearing up in a professional setting if you're giving a speech, presentation or toast about a project or team that's near and dear to your heart, especially in a mission-based organization or with a program that serves a greater social good. It makes you look human, and most people respond positively to that.

Mrs. Moneypenny, columnist for the Financial Times Magazine and author of Sharpen Your Heels: Mrs. Moneypenny's Career Advice for Women, says you can also get away with crying if you're sympathizing with a coworker's personal tragedy, especially if the two of you are alone together. Not cool: crying while firing someone. In general, crying because of the demands of your job is less acceptable than crying out of personal sorrow or an upwelling of pride.

Get out.

Mrs. Moneypenny says that if you're about to cry in a meeting or other semi-public work setting, "try to remove yourself from the room and preferably the building." In an open-plan office, she points out, going back to your desk is still pretty public. And in the bathroom, other people might hear you. Instead, Moneypenny suggests that you go outside, take a trip around the block, and "walk it off."

Make an excuse.

To excuse yourself for your head-clearing walk, Moneypenny suggests that you "invent a phone call." Goodman has some other suggestions:

People have told me they've faked allergies, a coughing fit or a contact lens malfunction to extract themselves from a meeting when they're about to cry. One woman said she's pulled the old "I need to get to another meeting — let's continue this conversation later" on more than one occasion.

It's not unheard of to run out of a meeting to take an urgent call, refill your coffee or retrieve a laptop cord. So those are other ways you can excuse yourself from the room until you pull it together. Just be sure to come back with your prop in hand. Your colleagues might not buy it, especially if they saw a tear squeak forth. But leaving the room to compose yourself is usually preferable to openly sobbing in front of your co-workers.

Making an excuse shows you're at least composed enough to pretend you're not crying — and it gives everyone an acceptable alternate version of events they can believe in if they want to.

Compose yourself.

When you need to stop crying quickly, Moneypenny suggests that you "think about something totally different." She suggests "mundane" topics, like Christmas shopping or which friend you should have dinner with next. She likens this technique to cognitive-behavioral therapy, and points out that it works when you find yourself getting really angry too.

Offer a short explanation.

An explanation may be a good idea after you've been crying, especially in a not-so-ideal context, but everyone I talked to agreed you should keep it short. Goodman says,

I don't think you need to apologize or explain getting emotional after receiving bad personal news or after accepting an award, making an impassioned speech or sharing some moving professional news with your team.

Getting weepy during your standard-issue business conversation or meeting is another story. If it's a little mist in your eyes, I would leave it alone. Some people might not even notice, depending on how far they're sitting from you. But if your voice quavers or a tear slips loose, you might want to do some damage control. One female entrepreneur I know suggests saying something like, "Obviously, I have strong feelings on the issue," and then immediately getting back to the topic at hand. Even better if you can propose a solution or list some to-do items for the others in the room. But don't apologize for your tears, or use phrases like "I feel like…" or tell people you're sleep deprived or stressed out. Make it about business and you'll come off as more professional.

Suzanne Doyle-Morris, author of Beyond the Boys' Club: Achieving Career Success as a Woman Working in a Male Dominated Field, also cautions against the "I feel" statement. She says,

If you work mostly with men, avoid using phrases like 'I feel' as that will rather unfairly only cement their expectation of an 'emotional woman'. Take the grain of truth in their comment and grow from it. If the person picks on others or stress and even crying is commonplace in your team, remind yourself it is not personal; unfortunately there are people who enjoy power games at work.

Goodman agrees that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to crying:

This is a conundrum for women. We're greatly outnumbered by men in board rooms and executive suites. And there are still some men (and women) who see their female colleagues as emotional time bombs. Letting a tear or two squeak through doesn't help the stereotype. And I have to wonder, if a man was caught crying at work, would he feel the need to apologize or explain it away? Or would he simply be admired for being passionate about his job?

Of course, it sucks that there's a double standard for men and women when it comes to expressing emotion. As advocates, voters, moms, sisters, and friends, we can work against this standard. But it can be tough to do that from inside your own workplace. One way to, at the very least, show that people who cry can also be competent is to ...

Do a great job and move on.

Moneypenny quotes Elizabeth Taylor: "Success is a great deodorant." She adds, "the best thing you can do is go in there the next day and act like nothing happened and not cry." Your coworkers will soon remember your recent successes, not your past meltdown. Doyle-Morris adds, "Don't avoid the people in front of whom you cried — that only creates an elephant in the room." And, says Goodman,

Don't repeatedly bring it up or apologize. That makes you look like a wimp who can't move on. Plus, it gets everyone thinking about you crying all over again. If you need to talk it out, phone a friend after work.

Don't do it a lot.

One cry can be acceptable — sometimes, it can even help you get what you want. A friend told me that when she knew she was about to leave her industry, crying during her final annual review had the unexpected effect of getting her a better exit package. And Doyle-Morris told me this story:

A client I'll call Sarah, once told me how in breaking down in a cubicle after an argument with her new boss, she escaped to the loo but ran into a colleague, Moira, in another team who reassured her that Sarah's boss was a ‘known idiot".

Sarah said "Just hearing he had that reputation made me realise I couldn't take it so personally, that others also found him difficult. Plus Moira and I began to have coffee every month and I still am in touch with her, sharing our crazy stories about work, four years later. She became an ally when I didn't even know I was looking for one!"

But crying repeatedly isn't going to be good for your career. Says Goodman,

Don't make a habit out of crying at work [...]. You don't want to be labeled the office crier. It's hard for colleagues to take you seriously if you burst into tears at the first sign of conflict or negative feedback. If the people you work with don't respect you, they probably won't trust you to take on higher-profile projects and more challenging clients. And when they're looking for someone to promote into that recently vacated senior role, it probably won't be you.

Moneypenny adds that if you find yourself getting teary at work a lot, make sure you're getting enough sleep — if you're always tired, you're going to have a shorter fuse. It's also true that if your job is routinely reducing you to tears, it might be time to start looking for another one. If you're crying repeatedly because of a dickhead boss, unreasonable expectations, or bullying coworkers, that's the job's fault — not yours.

The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube
Sharpen Your Heels: Mrs. Moneypenny's Career Advice for Women
Beyond the Boys' Club: Achieving Career Success as a Woman Working in a Male Dominated Field