Cornell University

March 17 2014

Fears for Tears

Boost worker trust with new approach to employee crying: research

It happens. Employees occasionally cry in the workplace.

Tears on the job can be awkward for managers, especially those who fear crying makes their workplace look unprofessional and their supervisory skills wonting.

However, when managers try to take an employee's perspective and display more understanding of workers' feelings, they can often help employees think about the situation in a new, constructive way, according to research by Assistant Professor Michele Williams.

"The research suggests that helping employees think about emotion-provoking situations in a different way or directly improving those situations increases their trust and job satisfaction," she said.

Williams has been conducting the research with Laura M. Little of the University of Georgia and Janaki Gooty of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"The key to handling a crying employee may be in understanding that crying is likely to occur at least occasionally and in having a plan," Williams said.

A plan, she said, could address factors such as:

  • Is there a place where the employee can have some privacy to cry? 
  • How can I arrange time to talk privately with the employee?
  • How do I explain the situation to clients or other employees in a way that is respectful of the crying employee’s feelings and privacy? 
  • Does crying make me uncomfortable? If so, do I need to take a break before talking with the employee or is there another employee who can help me talk with the crying worker?

Managers without a plan often feel stressed by tears and encourage crying employees to suppress their feelings and "smile," which can make an employee feel isolated, Williams said.