A recent satirical column at the New York Times  shone a spotlight on the controversial topic of crying at work, with comedian and writer JiJi Lee taking a sideswipe at how difficult open-plan offices have made it to openly express emotion.
Lee offers some amusing thoughts on how workers should surmount the relevant hurdles by suggesting a series of locations to which they could scurry if they are feeling somewhat overcome.
For example: “At Ravi’s standing desk: The dry cleaning he’s always hanging on it will provide partial coverage. Plus, crying at a sit/stand desk is so much better for your posture.”
And another: “By the water cooler: Boost collaboration with your co-workers by taking turns to openly weep. They might hesitate at first, but remind them it’s easier to cry in person than via email.”
In an earlier NYT piece,  published last month, Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green said that crying at work “happens to a LOT of people. I don’t think to everyone, but crying at work is much more common than people realise – probably because it usually happens behind closed doors, like in a one-on-one meeting with your boss. But managers keep boxes of tissues on their desk for a reason”.
On the question of whether it is an automatically embarrassing act, Green notes: “Well, it depends on specifics! If you’re regularly crying at work, or you break down in sobs at a staff meeting, or you’re crying in response to mild feedback … yeah, it can hurt your reputation, for sure. But getting a little teary in a one-on-one meeting where you’re frustrated or stressed? An awful lot of people do that at some point during their careers, and while they tend to be mortified, it’s usually fine.”
However, UC Davis Graduate School of Management’s Professor Kimberly Elsbach noted in a recent interview  that gender complicates the issue. In her assessment, while emotional episodes tend to damage women’s careers, they actually assist men’s.
“For most women,” Elsbach says, “crying is really not in their control. We know that boys are socialised not to cry and don’t have to think about it when they’re adults. But most girls aren’t socialised not to cry. So when you see Harvey Weinstein, who’s widely known to be a bully, yelling at someone, that behaviour may actually give him status.” She adds that those gender-based attributions will take “generations and generations to unravel”.
So, is crying at work really fine, or something to guard against?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It has struck me for some time that we tend to use the term ‘emotional’ as a byword for sadness. This is particularly true of contestants on TV shows such as Masterchef, who regularly describe the process of performing under pressure – or, if they don’t meet the judges’ standards, exiting the competition – as ‘emotional’. So in that sense, the term is now bound up with a single emotion.”
However, she notes: “The emotional spectrum is incredibly broad, and – as Elsbach’s comments indicate – it is curious that of all the choices available on that scale, anger is still seen as one that is okay to bring into work. Even though the professions have experienced a consciousness-raising episode around #MeToo, along with other anti-bullying, anti-harassment initiatives, anger is still seen as an emotion that is likely to get results. Other emotions regularly surface at work – for example, we are surprised, we’re afraid. But expressing those sorts of emotions is still considered somewhat deviant.”
Cooper points out: “When change programmes are announced, they often trigger a mixture of surprise, fear, frustration and/or sadness – and the prevailing view of many leaders is that their middle managers should manage their teams out of those emotions. Crying, however, is a natural expression of such feelings, and a cathartic release – beyond which people are able to collect themselves and think more clearly about the information or changes with which they have been presented.”
She adds: “The socialisation of whether or not it’s okay to cry at work is replete with variables. Leaders tend to prefer the emotional expression in their workplaces to lean in favour of laughter, thereby conveying a joy at delivering upon the promises made to customers. But when workers cry in response to difficult scenarios, that should be accepted as much as how some people get through such situations with the aid of humour. Others, of course, choose not to show what they are experiencing at all.
“We are all different. And amid the persistence of genuinely harmful behaviours such as shouting and bullying, any attempt to outlaw crying seems entirely misplaced.”
For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute