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Is it OK to cry at work?

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NEW YORK — The standard advice: Never do it. Unless someone dies. Then it’s okay.

When it comes to crying at work the default assumption is that doing it will make people think you’re weak if you’re a man and too emotional if you’re a woman.

But there’s a new school of thought emerging: We’re human. It happens. And the smartest leaders get that.

“Emotions aren’t really sanctioned in corporate America,” said former HR executive Cynthia Shapiro, author of “Corporate Confidential.”

Well, some are.

On the one hand, employers want you to bring passion to your work. Yet they expect you to check your more negative emotions at the door. (Except anger, which often is more acceptable in high-pressure situations than tears.)

“It’s crazy. We’ve built this weird, false world,” said Jim Whitehurst, CEO of open-source software maker Red Hat and former COO of Delta Airlines.

If you want an employee’s inspiration, excitement and enthusiasm, by definition you want someone who’s emotional and all that implies, according to Whitehurst, who just wrote “The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance.”

Tears can be one indicator that someone is wholly invested in their job.

“Someone who’s disengaged will never cry at work. Someone who is will get into the red zone at some point,” said organizational psychologist Liane Davey.

But more than that, there’s valuable business information to be gleaned when someone cries, said Davey, who helps dysfunctional corporate executive teams work better together.

“Tears are emotional data,” she said. They’re a signal that something really important is going on.

Davey tells the story of an executive at a technology company who ended up crying in frustration in front of the CEO and her colleagues. All attention and resources were being driven to a small division of the company, while the division run by the frustrated executive — which was the biggest revenue driver — got little acknowledgement. That made it very hard for her to keep her team feeling engaged and valued since no one was even throwing them a bone.

The CEO and executive team heard her message and ended up thanking her for it, Davey said.

Tears, of course, can also humanize. As an HR executive, Shapiro had to lay off many people whom she had hired. She ended up crying when she did it.

She then beat herself up about it. “But it turned out to be fine because they could see I cared,” Shapiro said.

The health benefits shouldn’t be minimized either. Crying is the body’s way of quickly relieving stress.

Whitehurst, who was at Delta when it filed for bankruptcy and had mass layoffs, said it would have been healthier if his senior executives cried when they felt overwhelmed. Instead their stress got expressed through chest pains and insomnia.

Have you ever cried at work? We’d love to hear about it. What caused you to cry and how did people around you respond? Tell us your story and you could be featured in an upcoming article on CNNMoney.

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2 comments

  • Kathy Johnson

    I was a corporate travel agent alone at my desk at lunchtime after a phone caller upset me. I was crying quietly when the V.P. Came in to make travel arrangements. I professionally took care of him and he then called American Express my employer to report me. I was asked to leave the company after that. I was told it was unprofessional to cry at work. This was in 1999..

  • hellomurica

    I can understand if someone waters up a bit after the death of someone close to them, but anything else and they should take time off. Co-workers are not there to provide emotional support. I don’t know much about the private lives of the people I work with, and I’m not interested in knowing it either. I’m at work to work, not make new friends. That said if I wind up with a friend that’s fine, but I don’t go around telling people about my private life, and I want them to do the same. So when someone is emotional because of a divorce, or they’re just depressed, upset over a review they got, etc., do NOT come crying to me.

    I’ve only had one person I’ve worked with come into my office and start crying. It was over a situation she put herself in having to do with work, and it was the most awkward and uncomfortable event I can recall at the workplace. I just wanted her to get the hell out of my office. I didn’t console her, or anything else. A few “mm hmm” in a very non-committal tone to indicate as politely as possible that I was not wanting to further the topic. Keep your needy emotional bagged to your friends and family, not the people you work with.