When it's okay to cry at work (and when it isn't)

Some of the world’s most powerful leaders do it.

We all know the workplace isn’t the place to cry. But sometimes it just happens.

There is a long held belief that crying at work is unprofessional, detrimental to one’s career, a sign of weakness, emotional instability, and a sign that the person can’t handle the job. Research conducted by Anne Kremer for her 2011 book It’s always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace found women and men at all levels of management reported crying at the job: 41% of women and 9% of men said they cried at work, and that it made no difference in terms of their success. One reason women cry more is due to biology: women have six times more prolactin than men (prolactin is a hormone related to crying). Kremer writes, “women feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.” Another surprise is that men were more sympathetic to the idea of crying at work than women.

While no one would recommend crying as a strategy in the workplace, is it OK to cry in the workplace?

Times when crying at work is appropriate: 

  1. When you care a lot. When you invest a lot of time and effort into a specific project. Your belief in the project, your conviction that one way is better than the other, your support of another person, disappointment at a failure, or triumph after a success. 

  2. When you are going though a tough time. If you are going through a health issue or a major life change, nobody expects you to keep a poker face.

Times when crying at work is less appropriate:  

  1. When you are angry. For example, if your boss denies you the promotion you have been expecting. In this situation, it might be more productive to get out of the office and go for a walk.

  2. When you are tired. Burning the midnight oil? A study from the University of Arkansas found that a lack of sleep may lead to enhanced emotional responses. If you know you are more emotional than usual, come up with strategies to calm yourself down whether it’s going for coffee with a co-worker, or scrolling through Twitter for a few minutes in your office.

  3. When you have received feedback. Crying at this time “reads as manipulative,” cautions Carly Drum, managing director of Drum Associates, a New York executive search firm. “In the short term, you may receive less criticism, because your boss simply doesn’t want to deal with the drama. But you’ll also receive less responsibility, and won’t be able to grow”, Drum says. That said, sometimes it is hard to control your emotions when you are receiving feedback.

Some tips related to receiving feedback and crying:

  • Take a deep breath, don’t get defensive and seek to understand the comments being provided. Be thankful that there are people willing to provide you with feedback - it shows they care! If you feel like you are going to cry during a face-to-face conversation, focusing on the other person’s eyebrows creates the impression of eye contact without the emotional connection.

  • If you find yourself getting emotional when you receive feedback, work with a career coach or a therapist — or even just role-playing a worst-case scenario with a friend. These are all ways to help you feel more in control of your tears.

  • Schedule a regular check-in with your supervisor to review areas of strength and areas that need work. They will make you less likely to feel blindsided come formal review time.

Overall, there seems to be no good reason to criticize people for crying at work, when pressure and demands are on their highest. Sometimes it is important to express emotions and workplace environments can strive to be more supportive overall which may prevent crying. Unfortunately, crying in the workplace often comes with negative connotations. People want strong leadership abilities, and most people seem to see crying in the workplace as a sign of lack of control.

What do you think? Do you think crying should be kept behind closed doors or is okay to show some emotion?




Babson, K., & Feldner, M. (Eds.). (2015). Sleep and Affect: Assessment, Theory, and Clinical Implications. Academic Press.

Burnett, D. (18 December 2015). Is it ok to cry in the workplace.  The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2015/dec/18/crying-workplace-psychology-sexism-apprentice?CMP=share_btn_tw

Davies, A. (29 June 2015). Go ahead, cry at your desk. New York Post.  Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2015/06/29/yes-its-ok-to-cry-at-work/

Drexier, P. (2015). The dos and don’ts of crying at work. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201304/the-dos-and-don-ts-crying-work