What to do when an employee comes to you crying

No, it’s not just the playground that’s prone to tears. Almost every business leader I’ve worked with has had a crying employee in his or her office at one point in time. In fact, a lot of them have been that crying employee at one point in time.

It’s very awkward, there’s no getting around that fact. The employee is often embarrassed, and most leaders are at an utter loss for how to respond. Often, they don’t know what triggered the crying jag in the first place.

A crying employee puts business leaders in a tricky position. All of the sudden, they’re wading around in someone’s personal emotions, instead of focusing on the work. They need to quickly find a way to diffuse the situation, lest they exacerbate the sobbing and potentially create an HR nightmare. Here are six steps for bosses faced with comforting a distraught employee.

  1. Stop talking for a few moments. It may seem impossible not to fill the uncomfortable silence, but there’s no point in talking until the employee has had a chance to get out those tears and frustrations, then collect his or her thoughts.
  2. Silently offer the person a tissue. Smart business leaders always have some at hand.
  3. Usually the person will start to apologize because he or she is humiliated to have lost control. Quietly reassure him or her that it is OK.
  4. Say something empathic, so that they feel heard. No need to delve into specifics, something as simple as “this is tough,” can provide comfort.
  5. As soon as your employee has regained control, resume the conversation, talking quietly. Ask if he or she is alright now, and ready to keep talking.
  6. Move the conversation forward.

These steps accomplish three goals: you are being kind, you are helping your employee to regain self-control, and you are not allowing the conversation to become derailed. By returning to the original conversation, you’re able to stay productive and to let your employee know that the emotional outburst has been forgotten and you’ve already moved on to solving the problem at hand.

Following the six steps can also help reduce your own discomfort with the situation. Tears are a normal part of human life, and can be triggered by a range of feelings, including sadness, fear and anger. Having a script to follow can help you respond in a helpful, business-like manner, so you can figure out why your employee is crying and whether it’s in your power to do something about it.