Unless you're on the set of Days of Our Lives, crying is generally something we all try to avoid at work. But, try as we might, it happens, and when it does, it's pretty awkward—not only for the crier, but for everyone nearby.
As a manager, I was faced with the uncomfortable responsibility of calming a crying employee on several occasions, and while never would be too soon for me to want to do it again, I did pick up some valuable insight on handling an upset employee or colleague.
The Golden Rule
Now, as uncomfortable as you might be, the first and most important consideration when you're staring into the welling eyes of a colleague is empathy. I know, sounds obvious. But the first time one of my employees started to cry in front of me—and the entire team—my first reaction was nearly laughter. I was so surprised, not to mention completely unprepared to handle the situation, that all I could think to do was burst out laughing.
Of course, this would've been the absolute worst thing to do, and thankfully, I was able to compose myself by remembering what it felt like the last time I was caught crying. It's hard to know how any one of us will react when put in this awkward position, but remember the golden rule, and start thinking about how you'd want to be treated if the tables were turned. I guarantee being laughed at won't be involved.
Change the Scenery
Having an employee cry in front of the whole team isn't good for the group, and obviously, isn't good for the employee. So, at the first sign of trouble, it's a great idea to guide that person to a more private area. A spare office or conference room works great, but avoid the bathroom at all costs if you plan on having any sort of discussion with your employee. It's fine if she needs to compose herself, but save the talking for a more professional atmosphere that doesn't involve an echo and running water.
The change of scenery approach works even if you're already in a secluded place. I had the unfortunate duty of firing one of my employees several years ago, and when I gave him the bad news, he burst into tears. We were already about as far away from the rest of the team as we could get, so moving to a new room wasn't an option. So, instead, I grabbed some tissue, and asked him to stand up and walk over to the window with me so we could decompress a bit, hoping the movement would help calm his nerves. It worked, and I've used it every time I've encountered this since. Even if it means just turning your chairs around, the change in scenery can help change the emotional context just long enough for your employee to catch his or her breath, and hopefully, will keep the waterworks to a minimum.
Talk Through the Tears
As awkward as it may be—and trust me, it will be—sometimes the best thing to do for a crying colleague is just let her get it out of her system. Turns out, trying to put a lid on whatever emotions triggered the crying in the first place might just make it worse.
My first solo experience with a crying employee came not long after I started as her manager, and I was pretty focused on establishing myself as an authoritative figure. While I certainly wanted to make her feel better, professionally, it felt awkward to have a good old-fashioned chat to find out what was wrong. So, I pulled her into the hallway and gently asked her to take a few minutes to compose herself in a nearby conference room.
Turns out, that was the exact wrong thing to do. She completely fell apart right there in the hallway, and started crying uncontrollably. Horrified (for both of us), I took her to the conference room myself, and sat down with her and let my instincts take over. I asked her what was wrong, and amazingly, that's all it took for her to collect herself.
While the simple act of talking can help calm emotions, it also helps create a bond with your colleague. Although I never did get used to someone crying in the office, this particular employee felt comfortable enough to pull me aside in the future, to chat (and cry) things out away from the group, which made life a lot easier for both of us.
Business As Usual
Last but not least, there's the business of how to react once the tears have dried. Depending on the situation, your employee may be ready to return to his or her desk after regaining composure, and the rest of your team may be a little unsure of how to proceed. After all, while you and your colleague were away, your team was likely coming up with all sorts of conclusions as to what prompted the crying in the first place. Was someone fired? Did someone die? No doubt, inquiring minds will want to know.
Unfortunately for the curious ones, it's none of their business, and unless your employee specifically gives you permission to discuss something with the group, he or she needs to know what was shared with you stays that way. Which means, you need to get the team back to business.
In my experience, doing a quick walk-through, asking for status updates on everyone's projects, and reminding them of upcoming deadlines is a surefire way to get the team back on track. If necessary, find a way to hang around close by all day—nothing fizzles gossip like a manager on the floor.
We all cry for different reasons, so it makes sense that, regrettable as it may be, eventually it's going to happen in the office. So, if it happens to someone on your team, remember we're all human, and do your best to help both of you save a little face (and a few tears in the process).