What to Do When an Employee Cries

by Sheryl Nance-Nash on December 2, 2013
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Tears can be tough to handle, particularly when it’s an employee who lets loose the waterworks. How best to respond as the boss is a delicate matter.

Dan Chmielewski remembers when, as a manager, he had to put an employee on probation. “I was told by HR and my managers to have tissues ready and not to touch her to comfort her in any way. It was a terrible one-hour meeting. When she started crying, I handed her a box of tissues and was quiet. I was told to try and get her to listen to the terms of the performance plan. The only reassurance I could offer was that I would work with her to help her through it,” says Chmielewski, now a principal at Madison Alexander Public Relations.

Chmielewski says that the hands off instructions were likely given because of the fear that if an employee cries because of an action by management or disciplinary action, in retaliation they might  complain of sexual harassment. Managers and owners have to be mindful of the potential for backlash, he says.

Here are a few pointers for handling an upset employee appropriately.

Listen, Listen, Listen

“People cry at work because they are human. Sometimes it is difficult to check emotions at the door,” says Karen Reardon, assistant professor of management and leadership at LaSalle University.

You can support an employee by staying calm and asking questions. “Most people overreact to crying at work. Employees hate to cry at work, whether they are male or female. The most important thing in my mind is that you shouldn’t make a big deal about crying. Try to get the employee to talk about the underlying issue that is really the problem,” says Christine Allen, a psychologist and vice president of Insight Business Works.

Saying things that normalize being upset is often helpful. Say, “I understand that you are upset,” or “It makes sense that this is really important to you,” Allen advises. Ask people not to apologize for their tears. Allow them to take time to gather their thoughts and explain what is bothering them. “Do not say things like, ‘This is not a big deal,’ or, heaven forbid, ‘Don’t cry,’” she says.

The best thing you can do is listen — without trying to fix anything — and demonstrate that you will not judge the employee for crying, Allen says. Once people let some of the emotion out, they usually are better able to focus on a solution to the problem. What’s more, she says, letting employees know that you care about them goes a long way in improving engagement and retention.

Respond Carefully

Don’t ignore an upset employee. “Even though it may be uncomfortable, the appropriate and professional thing to do is to engage them,” says Dan Markin, president of Dan Markin Co. “Deal with the fact that the employee is crying. In my experience, more than 90 percent of these situations occur from circumstances outside the workplace. Not to be cold, but there can be legal exposure when you get involved in your employees’ personal lives.”

Markin recalls a story where an employee received a phone call that upset her. When her manager asked what was wrong, she revealed that she had received information that her husband was terminally ill. A couple of weeks later when the company was forced to downsize, her position was among those eliminated. She filed a complaint against the company saying that the company eliminated her position because they were concerned about her ability to work, now that she might have to take time off work, and come in late,  to look after her ill husband.

“It’s human nature to ask what’s going on. But once you learn information from an employee, you can’t unlearn it. What you know can backfire later,” says Markin.

Although spousal trouble, a death in the family, or issues with children may be the source of tears, the problem may also stem from a co-worker’s behavior, job stress, or a heavy workload — issues that you need to know about, notes Jennette Pokorny, vice president of marketing and communications for EverNext HR.

If an employee needs to leave for the day, consider granting the time off. “Leaving an upset employee in a working environment can affect the whole staff,” Pokorny cautions. Depending on the situation, “helping” may be ill-advised. For example, offering money to relieve a financial burden may not work out in your favor. “This may become an ongoing request if the employee is bad with their money, or even worse, another employee might find out and feel that you are showing favoritism,” Pokorny says.

Do take action if the problem is work-related. “Get to the root of the problem quickly, before it spreads in the office and employees start taking sides. If there are other employees involved, give them their fair chance to weigh in,” Pokorny says. Document everything and, if needed, have witnesses write statements. Follow your company’s protocol for addressing workplace conflict or harassment.

Lastly, Pokorny advises, “Whether the crying was prompted by business or personal issues, be sympathetic but always stay neutral.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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