Being in the presence of a crier can make the toughest individual a little uncomfortable. One fairly common but nevertheless uncomfortable scenario is watching a direct report burst into tears in front of you.
Having an employee cry in front of you may not bother some managers, but for others it may feel awkward and uneasy. Unfortunately, you’re going to face moments like this over the course of your career as a leader or supervisor. Tears do not belong in the office, but crying is part of being human.
Don’t ignore an upset employee. Instead of continuing on as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening, treat the person with empathy. In an effort to be supportive, ask appropriate questions to figure out why the employee is so upset. Majority of the time these situations occur from circumstances outsidethe workplace. Choose your questions wisely, there can be legal exposure when you get involved in your employees’ personal lives.
It’s always a good idea to have a box of tissue handy and offer them a bottle of water. If an employee starts to cry in a group setting, pull them into a more private setting to see what is going on with them. A good rule of thumb is to avoid physical contact like a hug or pat on the shoulder, it may make the already awkward situation more awkward. A short break following the meeting can allow the individual to return to their colleagues after tell-tale signs such as puffy or red eyes have disappeared. If further discussion is needed due to a conflict with another employee, the discussion should not take place on the same day. It is better to give the employee concerned time to calm down and get their thoughts in order.
Be aware that sudden and frequent crying may be a symptom of bigger problems, either at work or home. I’d certainly be concerned if a lot of my employees were crying at work – that just might be a sign that there’s a problem with the work environment. Also, stuff happens in our lives, and it’s impossible to separate our personal lives from our work lives. While it’s not part of your job description to solve your employee’s personal problems, being understanding and supportive is the right thing to do as a leader. At the same time, an objective reaction avoids the situation where employees consciously use tears to get their own way. A senior manager or executive who constantly gives in to the tears of the same employee not only loses credibility but also sets colleagues against the employee due to his/her unfavorable leadership style.
Yes, a “time-out” is a good idea, but it should not be a permanent time-out. Set a follow-up time and pick up right where you left off. Don’t let crying be an excuse for avoiding the issue or lowering your standard. When employees’ emotions are running high, a senior manager should always try to remain neutral and discuss problems objectively. Even though having an employee cry in front of you is uncomfortable, follow your company’s standard practices for addressing the issue. Lastly, regardless if the crying is work related or personal, be sympathetic but always stay neutral.