When you see a colleague crying at work, remember this

Not only are women socialized to express sadness more than men, but we’re also punished more harshly for doing so. | Photo credit: Rawpixel

Not only are women socialized to express sadness more than men, but we’re also punished more harshly for doing so. | Photo credit: Rawpixel

“Three things happen when women work in labs,” the Nobel prizewinning biochemist Tim Hunt said in 2015. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” He went on to suggest single-sex labs as a solution. The subtext of his comments and recommendation is clear: women bring emotions to work, and feelings have no place in professional settings.

Soon after, Hunt came under fire for his comments and apologized. But his words revealed a prominent bias in corporate culture, which is that tears are unprofessional. Studies show that getting misty-eyed at work translates as fragile and incompetent. While crying signals a lack of control, professionalism is all about poise. 

But what if workplaces started to honor emotions instead of recoiling from them?

At a time when it’s increasingly popular for companies to encourage their employees to bring their whole selves to work, it’s curious to me that emotive outbursts are still considered career hazards. 

The irony is striking. A strategy of detachment might help prevent tears, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for employers who hope to build passionate teams. According to a Gallup poll of 80,000 employees, a full 70% report disengaging at work

For women in particular, expressing emotions at work is risky business. Not only are we socialized to express sadness more than men, but we’re also punished more harshly for doing so. A survey in the book It’s Always Personal reveals that 41% of women cry at work, compared to 9% of men; while males are deemed more likable for their tears, however, their wet-faced female counterparts lose credibility. As a result, career advisers and many online think pieces discourage women from crying at work.

But asking women to pretend their feelings don’t exist in the office isn’t a sustainable solution.

Take it from someone who knows. I used to believe I was too emotional to be in a position of power. An internship adviser once implied that I should tone down my excitability to seem more qualified for jobs after graduation. Another boss believed I cared too much about the happiness levels of my friends at work. Not to mention, articles across the Internet were telling me to curb my habit of starting sentences with “I feel that…,” suggesting that the modifier would undermine my points when I spoke to men. 

Over the years, I learned to hide my thin skin inside a shell of composure. I also I discovered that the most effective leaders are empathetic ones, and that compassion correlates positively with profit and productivity. It turned out that emotions weren’t my enemy, after all.

Still, I fear the business world’s distaste for emotions encourages other women to turn against themselves. I think of Mika Brzezinski, co-host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, who cried in front of the president of CBS News after being fired. She later expressed regret, warning ladies, “If anything, when you cry you give away your power.” I would argue that when you suppress your emotions, that’s when you give away power. For me, Brzezinski’s episode was refreshing. She’s not weak; she’s human. 

And so, the next time you see a co-worker sniveling in the bathroom, notice your reactions. Are you aghast and judgmental, or do you see an opportunity to create a more humane workplace?

Rethinking the corporate phobia of sentimentality — and deciding to change institutions, not women — will foster the kind of openness, work-life integration, and personal growth that so many experts believe companies need. While modulating emotions is a useful tool, I also believe, to quote the feminist scholar Audre Lorde, that thinking vs. feeling "is a choice of ways and combination" — not a dichotomy with only one right answer. Given that the most empathetic companies generate 50% more net income, it seems safe to say that feeling can sometimes be the best course. 


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