There are three levels of crying intensity. Here they are, in increasing order of severity:
- Tears and runny nose
- Constricted throat, making it difficult to speak
Let's look at each of these levels one at a time:
Dealing with Level 1 is straightforward: Hand the employee a box of tissues and give her reassurance each time she apologizes. Usually you’ll get two or three apologies before she realizes everything’s okay and then you just carry on with the meeting. You don’t have to wait for the tears to stop, in fact you shouldn’t. She’d much rather focus on the issue at hand than on the fact that she’s crying. One very smart, very competent woman told me that when she cries at work she wants to tell her boss,
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not that upset, I’m just crying. Let’s keep going with the meeting.”
Some time ago I had a young manager come to my office to tell me about a serious personal situation that was going to affect her work. As she talked, tears started running down her cheeks. She expressed embarrassment; I reassured her. She apologized; I again reassured her. She then carried on as though nothing was happening. I thought she handled the situation maturely and professionally. It actually increased my already high opinion of her. She showed good composure in difficult circumstances.
Level 2 is more complicated because it’s hard to converse with someone who’s having difficulty speaking. If the employee is choked up and can’t talk, what you want to do is take the pressure off her. Don’t just sit and stare at her. It helps to talk while she tries to collect herself. One thing that has worked well for me is to tell a story that is relevant but not upsetting. There’s almost always something in my background as a manager that comes to mind. There’s something about chatting a bit without asking the employee any questions that gives her some space to get herself under control. At some point the employee will usually make a comment in response to some aspect of the story and if her voice is normal and unconstricted you know you’re out of the woods and can pick up where you left off.
I've only had employees reach Level 3 – outright sobbing – a few times and it was always about a personal issue as opposed to a performance issue. What I ended up doing was giving the employee a big hug, after getting her permission to do so, and that really seemed to help a lot. I realize this is probably contrary to what your HR director would advise, but in those instances it was clearly the right thing to do as a human being and as a manager and in each case it seemed to do the employee a world of good. A good hug is wonderful medicine and one of the nicest things people can do for each other. It’s a shame hugging has become so disfavored, which, of course is the result of some really lousy managers using hugging as an excuse for groping.
Whether it’s a good idea for you to give a crying employee a hug depends entirely on your ability to judge whether it will seem like a comfort or an imposition to the employee. If you’re not confident of your ability to make that judgment call, don’t do it. Plus, only do it if you are comfortable doing so, if hugging comes naturally to you. If you feel awkward giving a hug, your employee will definitely feel awkward getting it.
Well, that’s it for the “99 Tears” series of posts. One of my goals for this blog is to give new managers the kind of information I wish someone had given me years ago. I hope these tips prove useful for you (though not too often!).