When it’s Okay to Cry at Work…and When it’s Not

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Key Takeaways from Prof. Peter Cappelli’s radio show, “In the Workplace” (SiriusXM Business Radio Powered by the Wharton School–Channel 111) 

When is crying in the workplace acceptable?


An “In the Workplace” segment that featured a discussion on crying in the workplace with co-host Dan O’Meara, management specialist and attorney, resonated with our listeners. Here are the key takeaways from our talk:

Workplace weeping is generally frowned upon.
We’ve all been there or seen it happen – a coworker breaks down at his or her desk or the frustration just boils over and you’re the one reaching for the tissues. I asked Dan to discuss with me what is appropriate when it comes to waterworks in the workplace. Dan noted that, as a general rule, crying at work is not viewed favorably. There are exceptions, like when a passionate employee has been worked too long without enough sleep. In that case, crying can actually be a good sign, indicating that the employee is highly dedicated and personally invested in their work. Also, by displaying emotional vulnerability it can serve as a way to bond with colleagues. But, except on TV shows like The Office and Mad Men, these instances are far and few between. “More often than not, crying at work adds an element of volatility and can backfire in unexpected ways. Besides being viewed as unprofessional, crying can make others in the office feel uncomfortable and have serious consequences for your career.

3 Ways crying can convey negative messages:

  • Lack of Control—crying may create the impression that the person is not in control of their emotions and cause employers to question the individual’s professionalism
  • Attempted Emotional Manipulation – in stressful situations like performance evaluations, employers can suspect crying as an attempt to evoke sympathy or affect a professional outcome
  • Loss of Respect – if you are in a management position, crying in front of your subordinates can weaken you as a leader and someone they can count on

Men may be viewed more critically for crying than women.
Dan reminded us that another thing to keep in mind is the subconscious gender bias that affects the way men and women are judged in the workplace. Men can be judged more harshly for crying than women, possibly because it’s a less common sight. According to a 2011 Emotions in the Workplace Segmentation survey conducted by Anne Kreamer and J. Walter Thompson, 41% of women and only 9% of men reported crying at work during the previous year (complete survey results found in the book, “It’s Always Personal”). The reason may also be biological since women have six times more prolactin – a hormone linked to crying – than men.

I noted to Dan and the audience that, unfortunately, these negative reactions are reflections of the workplace as it is, not as it necessarily should be.

It’s all about context.
In Dan’s opinion, the ideal amount of times a person would cry over a forty-year career is zero. Crying at work might not be outright career suicide, but it is generally a bad idea. You run the risk of leaving a bad impression on your employers, colleagues, and clients. But there are also exceptions when crying at work is not only acceptable, but understandable.

We all go through emotional ups and downs and inevitably, these personal issues can spill over into our work life –a difficult divorce, the death of a family member, or some other devastating news you are grappling with. My rule of thumb is this: if a you could imagine most people with whom you work getting emotional over the situation, it’s okay. Go ahead and cry.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. His most recent book is Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make. “In the Workplace” (SiriusXM Business Radio Powered by the Wharton School–Channel 111) airs live 5 pm ET Thursdays.

To read more from Prof. Peter Cappelli, visit his LinkedIn page.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather