Crying at Work


November 3, 2010

I had another topic planned for today but sometimes a conversation sparks a topic that I can’t get off my mind.  Last night, I had a discussion with someone who was asking about what it was like working in HR as a career.  We talked about recruiting and how campus hiring is different from experienced hiring.  We talked about giving presentations on various types of information.  And we talked about performance coaching and terminations.

Now, while I am not heartless and do not believe that terminations should be a surprise, I’ve always been the person in HR known for being direct.  In fact, from early in my career, employees knew that if they wanted to cry and get the motherly- nurturing touch, they needed to go to the office next to mine and chat with my associate.  She even had a box of Kleenex at the ready for those employees.  If they wanted the “tough love” and direct approach, they’d come to me.  That didn’t mean that I wasn’t kind or that I didn’t listen to them.  It’s just that I’m not one to sugar coat everything or beat around the bush.  It’s just a style thing.  Which brings me to the question I was asked last night….

“Don’t you ever cry when you terminate someone or hear their sad story?”

The question stopped me in my tracks.  No, I do not cry at work. For me, being able to do my job well means that even if I am touched by a situation or story, I need to maintain my composure at all times.  It may not always be easy, but for me, there are no tears in Trish’s HR.  I need to be strong for the employee.  I need to help them through a time where they may be only thinking with the emotional side of their brain and I want to be the stability.  I’m not their parent.  I’m HR.

What do you think?  Have you ever cried with an employee at work, or would you never do that?  Under what circumstances would it be appropriate?  Share the stories with me.  Oh, and…’s a Kleenex, just in case.


  • I have cried at work, but only tears of joy – when I’m happy for someone about something big, I mist over. If you ever want to see me cry, tell me your wife is now cancer free, or your kid can take his brace off, or you finally graduated after going to school at night for five years. Hallmark happy things just get me. It is what it is and it’s not going to change.
    But I generally can control it when I personally am angry, sad, frustrated, or when I’m dealing with an upset or sad employee. CERTAINLY I’m way too on my guard to cry during a termination.
    I’m totally with you that I’m not anyone’s mother confessor, and I’m not going to keep kleenex on my desk.

    • @Franny- Great point about the good stuff. I am definitely not opposed to getting a little misty over some really great news. Or, if a colleague experienced something devastating (nothing to do with work) I can see feeling my emotions come out a little. And, as you know, I’m a hugger, so hugs would be all over the place. I can be nurturing….at the right times. 🙂

  • Crying at work is as unprofessional as it gets. I would rather someone punch someone at work than cry, as both rank about the same in my opinion. Neither are appropriate. Crying is a sign of weakness. Is Tyson going to NOT knock you out if you start crying? Didn’t think so.

    I can just see the notes on said employee on exit interview file: “Weak in times of stress. Could also be mentally unstable. Critical decision making can be compromised due to fragile emotional nature. Do not rehire, EVER.”

    I can understand someone crying when they got into their car. But I think that energy is better used to get another job. But that’s me. Getting fired is devastating, but the bills don’t get paid by crying them away.

    I guess if I were in HR, I would be known as the soft, cuddly type.

    • @Doug- You make me laugh! You would definitely be a soft, cuddly HR type…kinda like a bunny… 🙂 Love the Tyson reference. I may have to write about “HR Mike Tyson style” in the future!!

  • Thinking back through my entire work history (almost 40 years. geez.), I can specifically remember crying twice. Both times I was angry and frustrated with my boss/manager for their actions and (what I considered) their stupidity.

    I have never cried in HR when delivering bad news, or even when I was a police officer and heard or saw something heart-breaking. I’m with you about hugs in the right circumstances, but crying is not in my job description.

    I always have Kleenex on my desk, because I have sinus trouble and blow my nose a lot. Use it if you must.

    • @Joan- I’d imagine that as working in both HR and police work, you’ve seen and heard many moving things. I love your last line about Kleenex. I’m with ya!

  • I have cried at work before but I’ve never cried with an employee. I’m sympathetic, I’ll let them cry if they need to, but I don’t join in because my job is to help, and crying with them doesn’t help.

  • Okay, I’ll admit to being the person in the next office with the kleenex, but I can’t ever remember crying with an employee or because of their sad story. I don’t think it’s professional.

    I think over the years, I have grown more into the Tough love – “you can cry in my office if you must, but because I do care about you, I’m going to tell you the truth regardless of whether it makes you cry.” I think people respect that because they know I will give it to them straight when others won’t. I will admist that I do have kleenex still, but mostly because I hate to watch people try to figure out how to mop up their tears.

    I can think of 2 times I have cried at work; one because I was so shocked I didn’t know how to react (in a good way) and once because I was so frustrated at my boss and the situation.

    • @Gwen- Hello! Believe it or not, you were not the person next door in the story. But, thinking back, you were definitely thought of the more compassionate of the two of us. I’ve seen you dish out tough love before too though. Hope life is treating you well my friend and thanks for the comment.

  • I’ve never cried at work at the situation that you’ve described — with an employee or during a meeting. I’m too conscious of what’s being said and what’s going on to think about crying.

    HOWEVER, I have cried due to my own life issues outside of work and have closed my door to take a deep breath and put myself back together. Life happens, can’t help it and won’t apologize for it.

    • @Kim- I like when you say that you’re too conscious of what’s being said and what’s going on. I’m like that too. I’m more worried about the employee response than letting my response get out of hand. Having your own issues is a whole different story. Crying over those things behind closed doors is nobody’s business. So glad you weighed in. Thanks

  • @ Kimberly –

    I get crying @ work when there is a REAL reason!!!!

    DEATH, Children dying, etc., is a real reason to CRY, not getting fired!!!!!!

    I guess I am as fuzzy a f**ing pork-u-f***ing-pine!!!!!

  • I’m with you and Franny. No crying when doing the work, and I’ve heard some stories and felt at bad as could be, but that wasn’t Tim at the table, it was the HR guy.
    And I always have Kleenex Brand Facial Tissue at my desk, because where I work, we always have Kleenex Brand Facial Tissue at our desks. 🙂

    • @Tim- Well of course you have that brand! 🙂 I actually have a box at my desk right now. Thanks for the comment.

  • Agree, the boss, or HR partner- should not cry when delivering the message- having said that- there are trigger events for an individual and emotions can be a trigger- and people are different and handle them differently- for me, as an example, when the parrot at the end of Mary Poppins umbrella tells her she really loved those kids- she has a tear (when you think no emotion possible)- and that is when I cry in the movie, even though it is a happy and fun movie. When my dad died years ago – for a year or two, maybe even longer, people could look at me cross eyed, and, at the time, I did not understand why, but I had a propensity for tears when I was angry, or disappointed regardless of the topic. If a 300 pound football player cries when he wins the super bowl- it’s ok- and that is raw emotion. So team- and friends- be careful- we may have raw talent sitting across from you and the root cause is good to know and understand- just sayn’

  • Great post Trish. I couldn’t agree more. We’re professionals, and we’re tasked with effectively managing some of the most unpleasant, emotionally charged issues in our organizations. How many times have we heard our leaders say to us “I could NEVER do your job.”? Plus, it’s tough to defend a termination during a deposition if you have to admit you actually cried during the separation meeting!

  • @Doug, you’re funny a porcupine, but I don’t think crying is a sign of weakness. It’s just part of being human. I’m not a blubbering idiot but I cry over more than death… just sayin’.

    On another note, have you ever had one of those adrenalin-filled times that when it’s over, you get emotional? Trish, this post made me think and there was a term meeting I was in when I cried AFTER the fact and here’s why…

    It was a term due to theft. The individual was going through very difficult times that we were not aware of. During the meeting, when the individual realized what was happening, a gun came out and was pointed at the manager and myself. I was so terrified that after calming everyone down and getting through the nightmare, my shoulders collapsed and I cried. It was after the fact, of course.

    I think of that with every term meeting that I’m in and will never forget that day.

    • @Kim- That is the fear that every HR professional has. The fact that you were able to remain calm during the incident is a testament to your professionalism. I would have cried too- situations like that can cause tears of relief for just making it out alive. Before working in HR, I worked in banking while going through college. My biggest fear was not a robber with a note, but the ones that storm into the bank and come over the counter with a gun. Thank goodness that never happened. When I got into HR I never realized that the danger can be just as real and even more personal. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • As strange as it might be to some – HR people are human and humans experience a range of emotions and sharing a moment with a co-worker that touches you and you share that with them is what makes us social. In my 35 years of HR, most would tell you I am the “tough-love, take responsibility for your actions” kind of person. However, I have shed tears with a staff member who has experienced a loss and laughed til I cried over something monstrously funny.

    Can’t shed a tear at work? Get over yourself!

  • Yes, Trish I have cried at work. Heck, I cry at the Little Mermaid. I’m such a sap. Before I left corporate in my last role, there was a man who I spent alot of time with. He was battling cancer and I worked with him his FMLA, STD, LTD, and death benefits. He had terminal cancer and we were able to get him his life insurance when he could no longer work because of the terminal illness.

    When he passed away, our offices were devastated. I cried with his wife the day she came with me to clean out his desk.

    I’m human and I work in HR. The tissues I’ve kept in the office over the years were not always for my employees but my benefit as well.



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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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