James has been with the company for twelve years. He’s a stalwart employee and lynchpin of the administration team. Business isn’t quite what it used to be lately. A couple of big contracts fell through and some regular clients are having financial trouble.

None of this is James’ fault, but less work means less money coming into the business and less administration. His role is no longer viable so he’s being made redundant.

He crossed the threshold into your office with a mournful sigh. James is well turned out as always, tie tucked neatly behind a precisely buttoned waistcoat- the dress policy was relaxed a couple of years before you joined the firm, but he isn’t the sort to wear a polo and jeans to work.

As you start to deliver the bad news, his stoic expression begins to crack. Slowly at first. A reddening of the eyes that could just as easily be a product of the air conditioning. Unsure of where he’s at emotionally, you carry on and, just as you’re about to say the words, he cracks.

Tears well up and flow down his cheeks like a river that has burst its banks accompanied by a guttural moan that made his shoulders heave.

Where do you go from here?

Why do people cry at work?

People cry at work for all sorts of reasons. From the obvious to the obscure.

Whatever the cause, crying is common, normal, and should be an accepted part of any healthy workplace culture. It’s not up to you as a manager or colleague to determine whether or not the reason for crying is justified.

I think it’s fair to say that no one wants to break down in tears in public. That alone should be reason enough to take crying at work seriously. Something trivial to you could be the straw that broke the camels back to the single parent of four children, or the person who is struggling with an ever-expanding workload.

How you respond to that person who is hurting at that moment is key. Get it right and you’ll give them what they need to work through whatever it is that’s troubling them. Get it wrong and you can push them deeper into despair.

Colleague crying? Here are two things not to do.

Finding the right words when someone is crying is difficult. It triggers a range of thoughts and emotions in the bystander, not all of them helpful.

1. Don’t judge

Meeting tears with judgment or harsh words is clearly the wrong thing to do, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to fall into this trap. If you’re tired, stressed, or anxious yourself, a colleague crying can push you over your edge and prompt an outburst in the hope that they’ll just stop. As if they wouldn’t do that immediately if they could…

2. You’re not psychic

On the other end of the scale, playing emotional Mystic Meg and offering your take on why you think they’re crying is equally harmful. You don’t know why someone is crying unless they tell you. That colleague who has just been made redundant might not be sad at all. For all you know, they’re crying tears of joy at the prospect of early retirement.

Comforting a colleague in need: Four things that help

Supporting a colleague as they cry isn’t as tricky as you might think. In fact, the easier you make things for yourself, the easier things will be for the person you’re trying to support.

1. Stay neutral

We said earlier that you shouldn’t offer your view on the source of the tears. Instead, stay neutral.

Asking open questions in a neutral tone works wonders. Questions like, “How can I help you with this?” and, “What do you need?” open up the conversation and give your colleague the space to process their emotions and make their needs known.

2. Move

Crying at work is unpleasant. Crying in front of a room full of people (including a couple of characters you don’t like) is downright awful. If a colleague starts crying at their desk, get in early and offer them the opportunity to move somewhere a little more private. Don’t force the issue, but make it clear that there’s somewhere safe for them to go and work through what they’re feeling.

3. Make space to breathe

High-pressure situations can cause even the most resolute to waver. Crunch meetings and performance reviews are places where egos can run riot, tensions can rise and futures, company and personal, are on the line.

No matter how high the stakes, if a colleague cries you need to slow things down and put the person first. This doesn’t necessarily mean calling a halt to proceedings and taking a break, but it might. Simply ask the person in a non-judgemental way if they’re happy to carry on. Something like, “Let’s just pause for a second. I can see you’re crying. Before we carry on can I just check in with where you’re at?” shows you care without disempowering your colleague. Thus, opening the floor to an even dialogue where you can both decide how to move forward.

4. Talk it out

Sometimes, the best thing to do is just let it all out. Bottling up is a helpful strategy for some, but for many it causes things to fester and rot leading to further pain down the line.

So, as awkward as it can be if your colleague is crying and they want to talk to you the best thing to do is just let them speak. Ask a few open questions here and there to probe the underlying causes for the information you need to offer support, but your colleague should be the one doing most of the talking.

Allowing your colleague the freedom to speak builds their trust and confidence in you. This means in the future they’re more likely to come to you before it all gets too much and you can put measures in place to prevent the distress occurring in the first place.

But what about the virtual workplace?

Before 2020, meetings with serious implications would seldom (if ever) be held over a video call. Unfortunately, for many, there are no other options.

The virtual environment adds a whole host of challenges to already fraught discussions. People are stressed. Few are having much if any social contact and the routines and tools we rely on to cope with stress are disrupted or absent entirely.

It’s also important to remember that people are having these, sometimes lifechanging, discussions in their homes. Their safe place. Imagine how awful it must be to be told that you’re being made redundant at your dining table. Without the physical distance between home and office, this sort of conversation can feel like a violation.

When a colleague cries on a video call, it’s even more important to let them take the lead. If you’re on a group call, consider offering them a move into a private chat room to give them plenty of space and time to talk it out.

On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk about it and need space, think about letting them leave the meeting entirely. Flexibility is one of the boons the virtual environment affords us. There’s no need to fight for meeting room space or take travel time into account. You can reschedule at the click of a button anytime, anywhere. Sure, it’s a minor inconvenience. But when balanced against the mental health and wellbeing of a colleague, the choice is clear.

Discover the words that work

The working world isn’t in a great place. Even before COVID-19 hit, we were dealing with an exponential pace of change, ever more crowded marketplaces, and stiff competition from abroad.

Now we’re dealing with all that as well as top-down restrictions on business, mass home working, and the most treacherous economic situation in living memory.

Emotionally charged conversations concerning redundancy and performance are becoming uncomfortably frequent. So, being equipped to handle them humanely is critical, now more than ever.

Whether you’re in a startup, corporate, or anything in between, we’re here to help you manage these difficult conversations with grace and confidence.

But before we do, we need to have a conversation of our own.

Fill in a contact form and we’ll be in touch.