When Is It OK to Cry at Work?

Published: Jun 16, 2015

 Consulting       CSR       Salary & Benefits       Workplace Issues       
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British scientist Tim Hunt  has watched his Nobel prize-winning career go down in flames this past week, after some off-the-cuff remarks he made during a conference in Seoul blew up on social media.

The comments: According to a variety of reports, Hunt called for single-sex labs, saying "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Opinions differ about the intent and nuance of the words. Following his resignation from positions at both the Royal Society and University College London, Hunt told the Guardian that "I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way." However, the science journalist—and fellow Seoul conference attendee—Cristine Russell notes that when given an opportunity to clarify his remarks one day after the conference, Hunt "largely stood by what he'd said."

As might be expected, the hot takes and think pieces have come thick and fast since then—each seeking to provide the definitive lens through which we should view Hunt's remarks. Broadly, they fall into two camps: those who brook no quarter to any hint of sexism, especially in a field that is already heavily male-dominated; and those who think that Hunt should be allowed some leeway, on account of a variety of reasons (among them: his age, his insistence that it was a joke, the weight of the rest of his career).

Somewhere in the middle of it all, however, has been a strain of commentary that gets at a different angle: the question of the extent to what Hunt said was true and, if so, whether it matters. One such example came from Hannah Ewens, also writing in the Guardian. Here's an excerpt that sums up her  take on the issue:

"As today’s workers raise tomorrow’s 'let it go' generation of girls, it’s time to officially decree that crying is okay in the workplace. Being unemotional and hyper-masculine has done no one any favors, perpetuating a corporate hierarchy where men still have the most prestigious jobs, even though women are good for business."

Ewens also notes that Sheryl Sandberg "writes in Lean In that crying at work is a good thing, because 'sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.'"

So: should crying in the workplace be the new normal? And if so, when, where and for what reasons would it acceptable? In your cubicle after a bad performance review? During the bad review? In a meeting? Or should we be striving for a workplace where put our emotions aside—a culture of non-voice-raising, non-tear producing drones?

Let us know your thoughts—and your experiences with expressing emotion in the workplace—in the comments below.