Is It OK for Women to Cry at Work?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Seven Ways to Move Up by Moving Over

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg raised some eyebrows earlier this year when she said in an interview that it’s OK for women to cry at work, and that she had cried at work herself. But in view of the obstacles that women face in the workplace as it is, is that really such a good idea?

I recently discussed that question with Leela Francis, a specialist in the field of harnessing emotion and body consciousness for women, and author of the book, “Woman's Way Home: Navigating Your Path to Embodied Power.” Francis expressed the view that it is indeed OK for women to cry at work:

If that’s what’s inside, it’s better for them to own it, and to safely express it. There’s nothing wrong with tears—we just have to take responsibility for our emotions. If we make other people responsible for the fact that we’re crying, then it becomes a problem.

So if it’s OK for women to cry in the workplace, I asked Francis, does the same standard hold for men? She was adamant in her response:

Why the hell not? If women can cry, why can’t men? The crying isn’t the problem. The problem is people’s reactions to it. If we all kind of grow up, and realize that tears are just an expression of authenticity, and that it’s a release of stress and pain and suffering, then we all understand that it’s better to release that than to harbor it in our bodies. Because if we do that, it becomes toxic, and it crops up in other areas. It wreaks havoc in all of our relationships in ways that we can’t even trace back to why we’re freaking out, or why we’re taking this out on somebody inappropriately. It’s because you weren’t really dealing with the pain and the suffering in the place where it belonged.

The problem, I argued, is that since we live in a society that hasn’t “grown up,” crying at work is likely to create an uncomfortable situation that people really don’t know how to handle. Francis said yes, it makes people uncomfortable, but a lot of things make a lot of people uncomfortable:

We all know that in order to grow, you’ve got to get uncomfortable. There’s no big person up there saying, “It’s not OK to cry at work.” There’s no law; there’s just a culture that you create. If we understand that it’s actually healthier to release the stress and the emotion, in the end, that creates a healthier culture and a healthier business. We need to understand that it’s better to go ahead and cry, and to have a safe place where people can be themselves, instead of having to pretend. Pretending creates the biggest stress.

OK, but the fact remains that we live in a culture that isn’t going to change anytime soon, so what if crying at work causes a person to suffer repercussions? Francis said the worst repercussion stemming from women crying at work is their own shame:

If somebody’s constantly falling apart at work, and she’s not doing her job, and she’s getting in the way of other people doing their job, that is a disruption, and that’s not appropriate. The person is not managing her emotions in her off time. That’s an important point: You need to spend time every day with your emotions. It needs to be a cleansing that you do, like brushing your teeth and washing your hair. You need to do it every day. When you attend to your emotions on a daily basis, on your own, because it’s not anyone else’s responsibility, they don’t disrupt in inappropriate ways. But let’s say they do. Let’s say once in a blue moon, you need to cry—you need to let the emotion out. You may need to excuse yourself. The point is that as long as the crying isn’t disrupting what’s going on, and as long as you’re not using it as a weapon against people, there’s nothing wrong with that.

With regard to this cleansing, does her advice apply equally to men and to women? Francis said she thinks so:

I’m not a man, so I don’t claim to be an expert on men. I work with women because I’m a woman, and I think I know women. But it makes sense to me that if a man needs to cry, it’s better for him to do that. Now, if he needs to do it at work, it’s probably because he’s not doing it on his own, in private, when he needs to. He’s probably built up a lot of stress and a lot of turmoil. I’m working towards a culture in which we do accept that men cry as well, absolutely. It has to start somewhere.

I told Francis that I thought it was fair to say that some women have found that showing emotion to that degree at work has negatively affected their career progression. So I asked her what her advice is for a woman who has found that to be the case. Her response:

I think if a woman has found that her emotion is being expressed to the extent that it’s disrupting her career, then I would say that woman maybe isn’t attending to her emotions consciously and devotedly enough outside of the workplace. I’m hesitating to blame the work culture for that. If your emotions are showing up at work so much that they’re getting in the way of your performance and the way people are perceiving you, then you’re probably not attending to them outside of the workplace, which is where they primarily should be attended to.

Let’s say a woman is in a meeting with several colleagues at work, and a difficult matter is being discussed. There’s some frustration—the last thing she wants to do is to cry, because she doesn’t want that to influence the discussion in any way. But she starts to cry anyway. I asked Francis for her advice on how the woman should handle that situation. She said there are so many different situations, it’s difficult to provide an across-the-board answer:

But what I will say is this: Yes, it’s important for me to acknowledge I am feeling highly emotional right now, and if there’s discomfort here with me expressing this, I will excuse myself. But right now, this is what I need to do in order to relieve the tension. And then I’ll come back. What I am an advocate of is to ask permission to express emotion. Nobody else has to be a witness to your emotion. It is a private and an intimate thing, and I don’t have a right to expect my husband or my colleagues to have to be a witness to it. But I can ask them to be a witness to it.

I told Francis that my sense is that a natural inclination of a person who’s in that position would be to apologize. She said that’s not the way to go:

I deliberately avoided saying that, because the tendency is to say, “I’m sorry for what I’m doing.” No. I would say do not apologize. Inform that you’re having emotion, and that you need to express it. Ask for permission, and then excuse yourself if you don’t get the permission. But do not apologize for having the emotion. I try not to tell people what to do, because that takes away their power. What I try to do is get people back to the truth, the authenticity, and the integrity within themselves. If I’m working with a woman, I’ll ask her, “Is it integrity within you to apologize for your emotion? Is that the truth of what’s going on, or is there shame coming up, that’s really at the bottom of this?” If it’s shame, then we want to work through that.

Finally, I asked Francis what advice she might have for a male supervisor on how to handle a situation in which he’s meeting with a female direct report about her performance, and she starts to cry. Francis said he simply needs to summon his compassion:

Remember that you have a human being sitting in front of you—it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s a woman or a man—this is a person who obviously has some stress in his or her life, that probably extends beyond the workplace. And it’s coming out now. So what would you do, for anybody, for a child, for a friend? This is an intimate experience between you and another person. How are you going to handle it, as a person with a heart, instead of as the CEO of the company, or whatever you are?

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 29, 2013 2:38 PM Odumbo Odumbo  says:
If she cries, then you know there's a lawsuit waiting to happen. And you know gender card is one of the most powerful cards out there after the race card. Prevention is better than cure or an out of court settlement. Suggestion would be that you should never be alone with a woman in any circumstance... not even professional. You just don't know what they could pull off. Reply

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