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Experts agree crying unsuitable at work

| Tuesday, March 27, 2007

When a 19-year-old got the transfer that Kaaren Radecki wanted at a former job, the emotional dam broke for the Dormont resident, who for a long time had felt miserable in her clerical position in a negative working environment.

Radecki, now 52, broke down and sobbed at her desk when she learned that her seniority had been trumped.

"I just cried and cried all morning. ... I managed to function, but the tears just would not stop," she recalls. "I wanted to quit right there. I wanted to get my purse and coat and say, 'To heck with it!' I was inconsolable."

When work environments are filled with human beings, people inevitably will get upset on the job sometimes. But can big girls -- or even big boys -- cry at work• When is it OK, if ever• Do tears make you look unprofessional, or more human and approachable?

The answe depends on the context, experts say. What type of job and working environment do you have, for instance, and what is triggering the tears?

"If your best friend in the next cubicle turns and says that her mother died, I think it would be perfectly appropriate to hug and have tears," says Paul J. Friday, Ph.D. He is the chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside.

On the other hand, he says jokingly, if the guy in the next cubicle makes a sexist remark, don't cry: Smack him. You get the idea: Being assertive when dealing with rudeness at work or difficult colleagues is far better than letting them see vulnerability. And dealing with a performance issue, or criticism from the boss, is better dealt with constructively than emotionally, Friday says.

That's not to say that working problems and frustrations -- or, certainly, personal problems and compassion -- don't still move people to tears, he says, because they do. The key is to balance your responses, and find the appropriate time and place for emotional expressions. People can find a balance between being overly emotional and unprofessional, and being overly cold and impersonal.

"If it happens all the time, then people think, 'She's at it again'," Friday says. "If it's every once in a while ... I think people being empathetic and sharing is a sign of a good workspace.

"You don't want to get to the point where you're so calloused that nothing phases you," he says. "But at the same time, you want somebody who can put emotion off and get the job done."

Susan Picascia, an executive coach with Pasadena, Calif.-based Corporate Consulting International, and a psychotherapist, agrees. Crying among colleagues, when appropriate, can be a bonding experience and make for a more human and nurturing work environment.

The key word, though, is "appropriate."

"The times that it's acceptable to cry in the workplace are in those moments of really being moved as a human being: someone dies, someone is born ... celebration for someone's retirement," Picascia says. "There's some reason that the human spirit is being moved."

But it is a mistake, Picascia says, to cry in the workplace when it has to do with feedback and criticism about job performance.

"It doesn't necessarily make the person look weak. ... It makes them look like they're out of control, and unable to be an adult in the workplace."

People should learn to compartmentalize their feelings, because colleagues will have only so much sympathy for crying about personal problems at work, Picascia says. People can be perfectly kind, compassionate and professional at work, without getting emotional, she says.

Still, an occasional cry during business hours might be inevitable, Picascia says. If people feel a meltdown coming on, they should try to take the day off, or go to the bathroom, or somehow take a break where they can be in private, she says.

Susan Young, human-resources regional executive for National City bank in Pennsylvania, says that the bank fosters a supportive environment for employees who are having difficulties.

"We have noticed that our employees throughout the bank react in a sympathetic and consoling manner if they notice a distraught fellow employee who needs encouragement or just a bit of cheering up," Young says in an e-mail.

Honesty Morgan, a truck driver from Hempfield, Westmoreland County, has plenty of time on the road in private, but she still feels reluctant to let go and cry when she is on the job, especially if she is around male drivers at truck stops. Morgan, 23, says that more women are drivers today, but it still can be a challenge to get the men to take them seriously.

"Most of them are pretty eager or willing to accept you as a woman, but the whole emotional thing ... if you start crying, it lets them see that maybe you're not as strong as you should be, and maybe you can't handle this," Morgan says.

Sometimes, the caring and helping professions who deal with the saddest situations are the ones where employees especially must keep their emotions in check, even though they feel moved and empathetic. Gary Duster, a funeral director in Tarentum, says that he feels for the families who have lost a loved one. Yet, there is a line of emotionalism he can't cross when at work, even though he can be kind and compassionate.

"We as funeral directors have a great deal of empathy ... and we feel their loss," Duster says. He owns Duster Funeral Home with his brother, Rodney. "But when we're working with grieving people, we need to be the strong ones. We need to be the ones who show them guidance, empathy and sympathy, but we can't be bawling like little kids.

"You can't put yourself in a situation where you are so highly emotional that you're not doing justice to your families and serving them well," Duster says. "When it's all over, you can ... cry your eyes out."

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