I Cried in Front of My Boss -- How Do I Recover?

Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

"A few years ago, I worked for two successful but difficult men," says Karen Singleton (name changed by request). "I had a job description with a clear set of objectives, yet we had completely opposite ideas as to how those objectives would be met. One day I was called into a meeting, and unexpectedly one partner took it upon himself to read me the riot act. I sat there and sobbed. On paper, I met all my work-related goals. I think he was just as surprised as I was that I was crying, but he didn't stop reprimanding me and I didn't stop crying."

When somebody cries in the workplace, both the crier and the witnesses often get uncomfortable. While it might be tempting to simply try ignoring the situation, the problem is that everyone still knows it happened.

"Since it is unusual to cry at work, it is important to do damage control or it can hurt your career and relationships with your boss and colleagues," says Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a psychologist and career advice expert from Sugar Land, Texas. "You do not want other people to view you as so emotionally fragile that they feel they must walk on eggshells around you."

The aftermath

So what can be done after the fact? Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics and author of 'Make Work Great' and 'Four Secrets to Liking Your Work' offers this advice:

  • Talk to your boss (and whomever else was present) in person as soon after the incident as you can manage.
  • Say something like, "I apologize for getting so emotional; it wasn't appropriate for the workplace. We're all under pressure, and I'm no exception. I hope you'll be willing to overlook my very bad day and talk with me again about the issue we were discussing."
  • Try to return to a more objective discussion of whatever topic brought you to tears in the first place.

Preventing future outbursts

In hindsight, Singleton believes she should have excused herself and left the room. Kathi Elster, co-author of 'Working for You Isn't Working for Me' and 'Working with You Is Killing Me,' agrees with this strategy. "If you feel like you are so hurt and have to cry, take a time out. Excuse yourself and go outside or to the bathroom until you're composed. Then return."

Hopefully, though, some forethought might help tears from ever surfacing again.

"Prepare for potentially difficult interactions in advance," Muzio states. "One way to do this is to mentally step through each person's perspective. If you're planning to approach your boss to discuss a raise, for example, prepare by imagining yourself in her shoes. Make a complete list of the pressures she faces. That way, you won't be so surprised by seemingly negative responses."

Civitelli suggests that workers focus on self care and effective stress management strategies in order to be less vulnerable. "When the economy isn't doing well, teams can be short staffed and nerves can be frayed, causing emotions to be closer to the surface. Crying at work can be a sign that an employee is feeling more angry, stressed and/or tired than usual."

When tears aren't work related

Several years ago, Kelly Kreth was working as the marketing and public relations director for a real estate firm when she received some devastating news. "My husband of only nine months called me at my office to say he had packed his stuff and had a moving truck outside, having secured a sublet. I had no inkling that he was planning this and burst into tears in front of my boss."

Kreth's boss responded with kindness -- giving her an "awkward" hug and telling her to go home. Later, Kreth thanked him for being understanding but says that she "didn't dwell on it, thinking it better to just get back to work and suffer silently so as not to draw any more unnecessary attention."

Employees have lives outside the office, and personal matters sometimes arise during working hours. While minute details need not be conveyed, a brief statement relaying that something unusually stressful or upsetting just happened can stop others from speculating -- and see you in a compassionate light.

Moving on

Regardless of the trigger, there is no sense in "crying over spilled milk" when it comes to workplace tears. Instead, it is better to take responsibility for the action and deal as calmly as possible with what caused the reaction. As others witness your professionalism, chances are that is what they will remember down the line.

Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.com. Follow @CBForJobSeekers on Twitter.

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