The delicate rules of the crying game

Tears at the office are growing more acceptable — for certain reasons and at certain times.

When Anne Kreamer answered a phone call from media mogul Sumner Redstone a few years ago, she was not expecting to end up in tears. Kreamer, then senior vice-president of consumer products at a subsidiary of Redstone’s Viacom, was in her office celebrating with colleagues a recent business deal. Redstone wasn’t calling to congratulate them, but rather to berate Kreamer for failing to move the company’s share price. She quickly brought the gathering to an end, shooed her co-workers away, and cried.

Reflecting on the incident, Kreamer, who has just completed a book about emotion in the workplace, says she wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss her colleagues today. “I probably would allow people to see that I was upset, and figure out a way to share a little bit,” she says. That’s because she’s come to believe that crying at work, one of the great office taboos, should not be considered the personal and professional failing many believe it to be. Not only do those who have wept in the office report feeling shame afterward, but the general perception of people who cry is that they are unreliable and ill-equipped to handle stress. Some surveys indicate workers believe criers to be manipulative. Clearly, blubbering in front of colleagues could hurt your career prospects.

The issue is particularly relevant for women, who cry more often than men. In a survey of 700 Americans conducted by Kreamer and advertising firm J. Walter Thompson for her book, It’s Always Personal (out next month), 41% of women admitted to shedding tears at work at least once over the previous 12 months, compared to just 9% of men. But women were just as quick as men to denounce weepers. In the poll, 43% of women said criers are “unstable.”

There are sociological and biological reasons why women become teary-eyed more often than men. Women produce more prolactin, a hormone believed to play a role in crying. Women’s tear ducts and even the viscosity of their tears are also more conducive to crying. Some researchers posit that women tend to shed tears in response to anger, whereas men will scream and yell. Yet neither response — tears or anger — is considered appropriate for women in the workplace, according to a study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. Study participants said men who show anger can make decent leaders, but deemed women who display anger or sadness to have less leadership potential.

The underpinnings of crying and our responses to it make the stigma weigh more heavily on women than men. But awareness of these factors, says Kreamer, can lead to a more compassionate environment. “Women are now 50% of the workforce, so this gives us an opportunity to step back and ask if we can bring more of our authentic selves to the workplace.”

Still, changing attitudes is tough. In a soon-to-be-published study, Kimberly Elsbach, a professor in the Graduate School of Management at University of California???Davis, found through interviews with 65 professionals that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to cry at work, and knowing the difference can be essential to a successful career.

Colleagues are most tolerant of a co-worker who is upset about a personal issue, such as a death in the family, Elsbach has found. Surprisingly, crying in response to critical feedback will not damage your reputation so long as it appears the feedback is getting through. A sobfest caused by workplace stress also doesn’t seriously hurt your stature — but only if the episode does not affect the work of others and is done in relative privacy. But crying during a meeting — especially if you’re the one in charge or your tears become disruptive — is a major no-no, causing a big blow to your credibility. In short, shedding a few tears is tolerated if no one else is inconvenienced.

That said, there may be times when it’s not possible to hold back tears in front of colleagues. When that happens, damage control becomes necessary, says Lois Frankel, an executive coach in California. Frankel suggests e-mailing or talking directly to the witnesses to apologize for causing any discomfort, and simply admit your emotions got the better of you. “That’s what people want to know: that you recognize what happened, and that you’re working on it,” she says.

Frankel, like Kreamer, believes that more tolerance in these situations can ultimately lead to a better work environment, but she is a business owner herself. An episode of public crying is acceptable — once. But repeated breakdowns are distracting and might indicate larger personal or professional problems. “There comes a point where I say, this needs to be fixed, or this person has to leave,” says Frankel. “If the tears keep coming, maybe it’s the wrong workplace for you.”