How to handle tears at work

by HCA23 Oct 2013

Tears in the office can be awkward but since we’re all human it’s something everyone is going to come across in the course of their careers. Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, revealed in her book this year that not only has she cried at work she has cried on the should of her boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

'I think we are, all of us, emotional beings and its OK for us to share that emotion at work,' the Daily Mail reported Sandberg as saying.

There can be many reasons why someone may cry at work from personal issues such as illness or family troubles to professional matters for example a failed project, bad review or issues with other staff. Here, two bloggers - contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo, and Jennifer Winter, a 14 year financial services veteran who blogs on The Daily Muse – share their tips for dealing with tears in the office.

  • Be yourself:  Act like you would in a social setting and offer support. How you follow up that approach will depend on several factors Gallo said, including how well you know the person and the office culture. If you know them well you may offer them a hug for example.

“The key is to engage, and let the tears flow, instead of ignoring or judging the person,” Gallo said.

Winter adds despite how uncomfortable it may make you, show some empathy and consider how you would like to be treated if the tables were turned.

  • Get to the reason for the tears: A colleague may start crying during a review but their tears may actually be from an issue going on at home. Try to tease out the underlying issues but respect your employee’s boundaries, they may not want to go into details. In that situation monitor from afar or ask someone who is close to the person to check in.
     
  • Change the scenery: Try to guide the person to a more private area where they are able to compose themselves and where you can discuss what may be the problem. Winter said the change of scenery approach can also work when you are in a private space.

“I had the unfortunate duty of firing one of my employees several years ago, and when I gave him the bad news, he burst into tears. We were already about as far away from the rest of the team as we could get, so moving to a new room wasn’t an option. So, instead, I grabbed some tissue, and asked him to stand up and walk over to the window with me so we could decompress a bit, hoping the movement would help calm his nerves,” she said. “It worked, and I’ve used it every time I’ve encountered this since.”

  • Keep the conversation simple:  If it is a personal issue, Gallo recommends sticking to simple comforting responses, avoid statements such as ‘everything will be ok’ or that they should ‘buck up’. Ask what would be helpful to the person in moving forward. If it is a work issue work with them to address the issue.
  • Back to work: Unless your employee allows you to discuss what the issue is it is no one elses business. You need to get the office focusing on their work. Winter recommends a quick walk-through asking for status updates from everyone and reminding them of upcoming deadlines to get them back on track.

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