Lilian Wanjala, an insurance sales representative, rues the day she shed tears at her workplace.On the fateful day, she had a bad day and when her boss summoned her to his office after she failed to achieve the month’s work target she broke down.
“When I was summoned into the boss’ office, I was already having a bad day, my child was not feeling well and here I was being reprimanded for non-performance. I just found myself tearing up,” she recalls.
She paid dearly for it. Her boss started using that incident to humiliate her in front of her colleagues.
“He would single me out during staff meetings saying that insurance world is not meant for weaklings like me. I regretted ever crying that day, but I couldn’t control it. I had to leave afterwards,” she says.
The world will sympathise with a woman who cries at a wedding, funeral, when a child is born or when they watch an emotional movie, but will be unforgiving when they show these tender side in a workplace. In fact, it is considered a death knell to their careers.
In 2015, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist, Tim Hunt said: “Three things happen when women work in labs, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
The renowned British physiologist further suggested that single-sex labs are a solution. Although Hunt was forced to apologise after he came under sharp criticism for his comments, his words revealed that there is prejudice in the corporate world when it comes to women crying at the workplace.
It is seen as unprofessional, even a taboo. According to a Californian researcher Kim Elsbach in her three-year study of repercussions of crying in the workplace, found out that most professional women have unsuccessfully fought back tears in the workplace at some point in their careers.
She said that women are much more likely to cry than men due to their socialisation. However, she warned that crying is always perceived with contempt and the consequences can be grinding.
Elsbach discovered in her research that there are few situations where crying is “acceptable” and the worst offences, she found, are crying during a staff meeting or because of work stress, like a looming deadline or during a disagreement with a colleague. It is considered disruptive and weak.
The only exception to criticism is crying due to a personal loss like death or divorce, and even that has its limits. “If the crying is excessive, repeated or prolonged, rather than a single episode, it could be considered unstable or weak,” said Elsbach.
Career coach Florence Mwibana admits that for women in particular, expressing emotions in a working environment is risky business. She quotes the book, It Is Always Personal, which reveals that 41 per cent of women cry at work compared to nine per cent men.
While men’s tears are deemed likable, a woman will lose credibility. As a result, career advisers discourage women from crying at work.
“One of the assumptions in the career world is that employees leave their baggage behind when they come to work and are expected to just bring along what they need to perform their duties,” she says. Human Resource professional, Pauline Kiraithe, says crying is part of our human emotional package; love it, or hate it. It is both strength and a weakness depending on when it is done.
“The fact that one can acknowledge the emotions they are feeling and are able to express themselves, it is a sign of strength in the person, be it a woman or a man. It can also be seen as therapy as once someone is done crying, it is assumed his or her healing process begins,” she explains.
Kiraithe notes that for the longest time, it has been an unwritten rule in the workplace that crying is not allowed and those who do it are seen to be emotionally weaker.
Fortunately with time, in people management, bringing in your heart and emotions into one’s work roles helps in achieving greater staff engagement. If an employee isn’t emotionally invested in their role, their delivery will be sub-optimal to their true potential.
“But as a people manager, when your employee cries, then that is a clear sign to focus and assist that employee through the challenge they are facing. Crying in most cases is a call for help,” she offers. She says that crying can only be seen as a weakness, especially in cases where the employee misuses it to manipulate others so as to influence decisions in their favour.
This unfortunately is manipulative and leaves a bad taste in colleagues’ mouths. This should be completely frowned upon.
“If it’s a genuine issue that warranted the crying, it should strengthen the work relationship as you get to know your employee at a deeper level, their concerns, their values and frustrations,” she says.