Crying in the Office: OK or No Way?

iStock_000004601196XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

A recent Bloomberg article by writer Anne Kreamer is proving to be quite controversial. In “Tears for Peers Are Newly OK in Modern Workplace,” Kreamer contends that women have distinctly female parts—their essential femininity, their nurturing impulses, and aspects of their intrinsic emotional biology, such as crying. According to Kreamer, these things are not socially-conditioned, but rather “neurobiologically hard-wired.”

While researching her latest book, Kreamer discovered that 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men reported that they had cried in the workplace during the past year. “This finding conforms to the national gender split that neurologists have found. Women, who produce higher levels of prolactin, the hormone that controls tear production, cry on average 5.3 times a month, compared with 1.4 times for men,” Kreamer wrote. “Women’s tear ducts are also anatomically different from men’s — they are smaller, which means that when women cry, tears tend to spill out and down their faces, whereas when men cry, their tears merely well up.”

She concludes by writing that tears at work aren’t necessarily a moral failing or a sign of weakness. While that may be true, claims of tears not being socially-conditioned are not only biased, but dangerous. Here’s why.

An Unfair Assumption

Roy Cohen, career coach and the author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide believes that Kreamer’s claims are unproven and that it is one’s emotional architecture and early socialization that produces tears.

“Kreamer’s claims suggest that women are more emotionally vulnerable and therefore less able to exercise decisive and impactful leadership; that their judgment may be impaired too,” Cohen said. “There is a huge difference between shedding tears and showing compassion – the former feels weak, whereas the latter makes people feel good.”

Because crying is often viewed as a sign of weakness, Cohen believes that these claims will raise questions about a woman’s suitability to lead and be taken seriously as a leader. “Employees look to their leaders to be strong, not to show fear, and to be consistent. In times of great stress and change – like the market we’re in – employees need to be reassured and inspired,” Cohen said.

In other words, while crying may not be an actual sign of weakness, it is definitely viewed as one – especially in the workplace. Kreamer also suggests that as the workplace evolves, it is becoming more acceptable to cry, but after speaking to two women at very different stages in their career, the general consensus seems to be that it’s never a good idea, no matter what your gender.

What Does It Solve?

Stella Fayman is a founding member of Fee Fighters, a Chicago-based financial services company and she has incredibly strong feelings about the “distinctly female” attribute of crying. Fayman has a degree in psychology with a concentration in gender and interpersonal relationships and according to the 24-year-old, women and men are “distinctly similar” and whatever differences exist are statistically insignificant. “Women and men are 99 percent similar, but for some reason society fixates on the 1 percent that is different,” Fayman said.

Fayman says that some of the “hardest, most badass” people she has ever met are women, including a former boss who at five-foot-three, was as no-nonsense as they come, garnering more respect than her partner, an ex-Navy Seal.

“These are the types of women I’ve seen in my daily interactions, women who consider crying in the workplace analogous to walking around naked – a non-workplace activity,” Fayman said. “Crying is not seen as an essentially female act; it’s seen as unprofessional and it would make anyone uncomfortable, regardless of gender.”

Industry and background, however, play a much larger role. Fayman says that in the startup world, it’s acceptable to curse on a daily basis. While she admits to feeling the urge to cry in the workplace every so often, she would never let herself and is more apt to “drop an F bomb” and move on because “in financial services, the tears are left at home.” Fayman also cites background as a reason why a person would be more or less apt to cry. As a woman of Russian descent, Fayman says she was taught from a very early age to be strong and express little emotion. This, she says, is part of her culture and when combined with her industry, crying becomes out of the question.

“Crying performs no function, but rather serves as a distraction and takes away from productive behaviors; therefore, it’s not ok for anyone to cry in the workplace,” Fayman said. “The important question is ‘what does crying achieve?’. If it makes you more productive without distracting others, then it may serve as an acceptable private behavior. If it’s just an outpour of emotion due to stress and it stirs up drama, there is no place for it in the workplace.”

Uncontrollable Urge

In most cases, we feel the tears coming. Whatever saddened or angered us sparks something that we can control and there is time to leave the room and compose ourselves, but what about those rare instances when the tears are as surprising to us as they are to co-workers? Nikki Johnson is a 57-year-old vice president at the property management and development company CFC Properties. In her 24 years with the company, she admits to crying at work at least 10 times and it’s something that she strongly regrets. Though she believes women are often more in touch with their feelings, being an effective leader means she shouldn’t cry at work.

“It’s not acceptable for a woman or man to break down in tears because they are overcome with emotion during the course of doing their job; this is perceived as a weakness and not a trait of a good leader,” Johnson said. “As a leader, I think crying in the workplace is unprofessional. A leader needs to make level-headed decisions that should be based on research, historical facts and figures, and consequences. As a leader, I won’t trust a decision based strictly on emotion.”

This is why the last time Johnson cried in the workplace was so personally devastating to her. She had just become vice president and was having a meeting to discuss the wages of employees in her department with the company president and HR manager, a woman she has a history of disagreeing with. Johnson had taken pains to evaluate each employee on their merits and felt strongly about who should receive a raise, but she experienced a great deal of resistance and immediately began to feel as if her input was merely a formality. There was a disagreement about the amount of a particular raise and before she knew it, Johnson felt tears streaming down her face. She was excused a moment later.

A few days later the company president called Johnson into his office, essentially telling her it couldn’t happen again. “He said, ‘I want to know where that came from. You are an officer in this company and I went to the board and recommended you as VP.’ We ended the meeting on a positive note, but I was still very embarrassed and I felt like I let him down,” Johnson said.

Unlike Fayman who factors in background and industry, Johnson considers rank as a good indication as to who is more apt to cry and whether or not it’s appropriate. As a leader, Fayman admits it was inappropriate for her to cry and she hopes it never happens again, but there have been times when female employees have cried in Johnson’s office after disciplinary talks and she behaves compassionately and offers them a tissue.

“I feel sympathetic toward them. They are not in leadership positions and that makes a difference. If I witnessed another female VP cry, I’d most likely feel like she needed to take some time to compose herself and then come back to the table,” Johnson said. “To be a good and effective leader is never to be perceived as weak. I have to be twice as good as a male counterpart to be successful; this includes being seen as strong, capable, and level-headed.”

So what do you do if you can’t fight it, if for some reason or another you feel a cry coming on? Cohen tells his clients that tears are fine and that it is possible to cry at the office, but that it should be done in private – a bathroom, in your car, or during a walk outside the office to get it all out and clear your head. The key to crying at the office – if you must – is exercising good judgment. As Cohen said, crying over the death of a colleague in front of others is acceptable. Shedding tears over an argument or bad performance review, not so much.

Editor’s Note: We invite our readers to weigh in below – is crying in the office ever acceptable?

0 Response

  1. Tears will hurt us if they flow when we’re losing an argument, we’ve made a mistake or we’re receiving critical feedback. But, when they spring from true compassion, genuine leadership, pride in a job well done then others can just learn to deal with them.

    Who knows? Tears may be the one true work-friendly contribution John Boehner makes as Speaker.

  2. I agree with Hello Ladies’ comment. As with most actions, motives are important. I have seen both men and women cry at the office. It was not that they cried at work, but why they cried that matter. When my boss lost a loved and showed up for work a few days later, I doubt anyone thought anything less of him for closing his door and taking a moment to grieve each day for several weeks.

    When I would offer direction to a young woman who worked for me she would often break down and tears and beg not to be fired in a very public way. Her inability to cope with even minor and necessary conflict became impossible.

  3. I agree with the women who say crying in the office is NOT acceptable, especially for a leader. And heads-up ladies, if you are not a leader but hope to be one, people need to be able to envision you in that corner office–so leave the Kleenex at home. Crying over work conflicts not only displays weakness, it is a demonstration of a self-centered perspective. In the example with the HR manager, the woman who cried was upset that the HR manager wasn’t valuing her input; she should have focused instead on how her input was (or wasn’t) valuable to the organization rather than indulging in self-pity.

  4. I get concerned when people say there’s no room for tears in the workplace. Maybe we’re not ready for the full-out, mascara-running, boo-hoo breakdown, but a misty-eye or drop or two can be great teachers both for the cryer and those watching. The only way we’re going to be able to break out of the old male-dominated way of leading is for us to openly recognize that emotion does have its place at work–in fact, I believe (and have witnesses) that it’s emotion that puts us in motion.