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Don’t Cry at Work—Even if a New Book Says it’s OK

Some who have read Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, or at least a few articles about it, have formed the opinion that it’s now OK to cry at work. The opinions expressed in a new book won’t magically bring about an immediate change to the opinions held by those who control your paycheck and career.

Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that crying helps you share emotions to build deeper relationships is true, but sharing thoughts and ideas instead of tears is preferable. While Sandberg doesn’t advocate crying on purpose, she doesn’t feel the need to hide the tears.

One could argue that since Ms. Sandberg became a C-level employee of the world’s largest social network (Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook’s COO at the time of this article), crying is not an impairment to upward mobility. There are outliers for any example. If you had to jump out of a plane, you’d want a parachute despite the fact that a few outliers have survived a free-fall. In much the same way, it’s always best to play it safe.

Your career success depends on other’s opinions of you which is influenced by how others think about you and how you make them feel. Not only does crying make you look like you can’t handle stress, it makes others uncomfortable.

Err on the side of caution—avoid crying; if you must cry, it should be limited to the following reasons.

The FEW acceptable scenarios are:

  1. You’ve just sustained a serious bodily injury. (Papercuts don’t qualify!)
  2. You just received a call informing you that a close friend/relative is injured/hospitalized/dead.
  3. You’re going through a divorce or similar personal stress.

The “unwritten rules” of corporate etiquette are: you get a maximum of one crying spell at that position/company regardless of your length of tenure. (It’s best, of course, if you don’t cry at all.) There’s no magical “one free crying jag” card given out each calendar year. Crying more than (or even just ) once could cause the people you work with to start thinking of you as an overly fragile person. Since references are important for networking and a career search, you should consider the impression others have of you.

You should excuse yourself to go to the restroom or your own office as soon as the tears well up. For #3; ideally, you should take time off and get counseling for the issue so that you don’t end up crying at work. Counseling is a lot cheaper than losing your job (or missing out on a promotion) and it can help you build coping skills (which can help you avoid public crying entirely). Reason #3 might be understandable, but it’s far less acceptable than reasons #1 and #2.

It’s important to think about why you were hired and given a certain compensation level. The hiring decision makers believed you would be able to cope with the stress level and responsibilities of the position. That’s why work reasons are not one of the acceptable reasons to cry.

At some point, you will probably endure an unusually high amount of stress. Work related stress and criticism are part of the position and duties you’re being paid to perform. If you wilt under pressure, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. Those in charge could find you unworthy of your position and salary; causing your upward mobility to stagnate or your employment to end.

It’s OK if you need to cry…

If a boss or co-worker tells you it’s OK to cry, don’t believe it. People tend to say or do whatever it takes to change or end an unpleasant situation. Some of the most common reasons someone would tell you it’s OK to cry:

  • They already perceive you as being weak.
    • You’ve already done enough damage to your work reputation that a crying jag could do no further harm at this point.
    • They are trying to sabotage you—to make you look weak in order to boost their own image. In sales or cutthroat promotion competition, tears could make-or-break your career.

What other “unspoken” workplace rules have you violated? Don’t let these common career pitfalls hold you back! Contact Crossroads at 317-842-8881 to schedule an appointment for career services.