Crying in the workplace

Recently on the blog of the Harvard Business Review, writer Deborah Milstein weighed in on the controversial subject of crying. Not in your beer. At work. She cited the appearance of President Obama, shedding a few tears as he thanked campaign workers and volunteers for helping him secure a second term, which you can see on video and notes: “When he wipes his face, making it clear that, yes, he’s really crying, his audience applauds.”

Crying in a work context is sometimes appropriate, acceptable, and even, as Obama demonstrates, admirable....Tears--and any other authentic display of emotion--show that we're deeply moved, which in turn moves our audience. Milstein goes on to note that while other males – Bill Clinton, John Boehner, Steve Jobs – have gotten a free pass on crying, it’s still frowned upon for women. She argues: It shouldn’t be. “Crying in a work context is sometimes appropriate, acceptable, and even, as Obama demonstrates, admirable….Tears–and any other authentic display of emotion–show that we’re deeply moved, which in turn moves our audience.” She cites cases of colleagues leaving and crying as they take their leave as well as her own tears after a mentor passed away.

Those instances seem valid to me as well, but I worry that – particularly for women – once tears are considered allowable, there may be no going back. As someone who has – on rare and not always appropriate occasions – cried at work, I have regretted it every time. I have gotten teary upon hearing I would not be getting a job I fought for, upon learning that someone else was being promoted before me, and once when I was being nudged off staff and into a freelance capacity.

For weeks if not months afterward, I had trouble carrying on even the most basic workaday discussions with the boss who witnessed the episode. I would lose not just confidence in my ideas but the ability to generate them. It was as if a different version of me had taken my place – and I couldn’t get that Genie (or Jeannie) back in the bottle.

Like it or not, we live in a world where women are still often paid less than men for doing the same work. (For extremely current proof check out The Simple Truth About The Gender Pay Gap from the American Association of University Women). One big reason continues to be that women do not negotiate. We do not ask for what we are worth. This has to stop, which means that oftentimes we have to find our voices. Unwanted tears have, on occasion, robbed me of mine. I don’t think we should encourage them.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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One Response to Crying in the workplace

  1. Anonymous says:

    Early in my career, I burst into tears while a widely feared superior was screaming at me for a minor mistake. Horrified, he stopped. Equally (if not more) horrified, I retreated to my cubicle and called my older brother, an HR exec at a Fortune 5 (yes, 5, not 500) company. “You’re a human being, not a robot,” he told me. “Don’t be ashamed of that. When he chose to scream at you, he stepped outside the bounds of common decency. Crying is a perfectly reasonable reaction to that–and a red flag for him that he can’t treat people inhumanely. It’ll be a lesson for him.”

    My brother was right–the exec apologized to me and was thereafter still tough and demanding, but always polite. It didn’t derail my career.

    Tears are a sign of humanity, not weakness–who in the world would’ve expected you to jump for joy when you were informed of your new freelance status? Taking it like “a good soldier” would’ve softened the blow for your boss–but he wasn’t the one losing his job! Everyone needs to be reminded in the workplace that all decisions–for good or ill–have human consequences. I’ve seen plenty of men on my staff cry or tear up–it doesn’t make me think any less of them.

    Besides, the office shouldn’t be viewed as a battlefield–it’s a place of human interaction. If it’s acceptable to laugh (or shout) in an office, tears should not be taboo, either.

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