Crying in a Contact Center Cubicle: A Look at Emotions in the Workplace

I’m not crying, you’re crying (at work). Photo cred: Ban.do

Samantha (not her real name) sat across from me in our small contact center. Not a week went by that she didn’t shed tears after hanging up the phone with a customer. She didn’t seem to mind that everyone saw her with tears streaming down her face. I remember her scampering, post call, out of the office to catch her breath. I would send an IM to a coworker saying something like “Again? Really?” when underneath it all, I deeply admired her ability to cry at work. There was no way I’d let myself do that, no matter what.

In the workplace, we’re told to grow a thick skin. To metaphorically be coated in “Scotch Guard” and let the angry words spewing out of customer’s or coworker’s mouths roll right off like nothing ever happened in the first place.

Maybe it was a mistake. Or perhaps something emotionally heavy was going on outside of work. It could have been hormones or a hangry, snackless afternoon. Maybe the angry words of a customer, frustrated about their own situation, would trigger a response. Tears would well up in my eyes. I felt faulty, as if I were not strong enough to handle this, so I’d excuse myself to bawl my eyes out in a bathroom stall. Or, I might pretend I’m going to lunch, take myself to a secluded place down the street, and just cry. There were also times I’d stuff it all down during the day and spend a teary commute home on the subway trying to hide my mascara smudged eyes behind a book, avoiding the confused looks from others on the train.

The crying didn’t happen at the office, let alone in front of others. No way!

In 2015, I had an anxiety attack at the office in front of a few employees I managed on my customer support team. They didn’t think I was weak or lame or tell me to “save my tears for the car ride home”. Instead, they brought in extra boxes of tissues, showered me with hugs, bought me flowers during their lunch break and pushed me to leave the office early.

It was then that I realized feeling feelings at work is totally acceptable. And that others will participate in a culture where it is OK to feel feelings at work.

We spend what, about 1/3 of our lives at work? Are we supposed to be completely devoid of emotion during that time?

In many current workplaces, yes, we are.

Openness and transparency about how we feel at work might be seen as unnecessary oversharing, distracting and decreasing productivity. It is important to note the difference between acknowledging and sharing our feelings versus habitual venting.

We don’t have control over when other people make us angry or sad. But we do have control over how we respond.

On the episode I Cry At Work from the podcast, Jen Gotch is OK, Gotch brings to light the fact that we’re human and well, we may cry. Even at work. She says,

We have to make compassion and empathy in the workplace a norm. 

Whether you’ve cried at work before and still feel embarrassed about it or are on the verge of tears right now as you’re reading this…

…here’s 2 ways you can show up to work as your authentic, emotional self and encourage others to do the same:

You’re the leader…

You have a big role in impacting culture. You’re someone who is open to sharing your emotions and can set the stage for others to follow. You’re not sure how to even start this, though. Ask for help. Invite someone to come to your workplace to help open the doors, like a speaker, workshop facilitator or even a yoga or guided meditation expert.

Things to consider:

  • How can I make this environment safe for sharing our emotions?
  • How can I guide myself and my team to take ownership of feelings and know we have a choice in how to respond?

You’re on the team…

You have a big role in impacting culture for your team, whether you think so or not. Others may hop on board the emotion sharing train with you simply because you’re already doing it. If you have a culture where you can safely express your emotions, Jen Gotch warns in the article, This Executive Wants You To Know It’s OK To Cry At Work, “Be careful not to take advantage of flexible, caring bosses that give you time and space to heal.”

Things to consider:

  • How can you show up to work as your authentic self?
  • If there currently isn’t a safe space for sharing emotions in your workplace, what feedback can you deliver to a leader in your team to help create this?

Have you cried at work before?

Want to get vulnerable and share your story? I’d love to feature it on our blog! 

Submit your story to me here: jenny@jennydempsey.com 

Jenny Dempsey is currently the the Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com. She has worked at tech startups since 2005. She's the co-founder and regular contributor over at CustomerServiceLife.com. She's a certified health coach, but not the kind that forces you to only eat cardboard and deprive yourself of ice cream. JennyDempseyWellness.com, the company she started, was designed to bring a new type of wellness into the workplace, one that gives you permission to look deeper into yourself, rather than just on the healthy snacks in the break room. She is the mother to a toothless rescue cat named Chompers. Avocados and veggie tacos are the way to her heart. She's also a Hanson fan for life.

One comment

  • In my experience, crying at work is almost always the sign of a festering problem. One caveat here: I don’t mean the one-off, sudden sadness you might feel if you learned of some tragic news–that’s different.

    An employee who cries every day would set off alarm bells. Are they not cut out for this job? Some aren’t, and if that’s the case, we should humanely and compassionately help them find a different job.

    Do they have something going on outside of work that makes it difficult to bring their best self to work? This one is more challenging, especially since whatever is causing their grief is probably none of our business. Well-meaning bosses often create all sorts of HR issues by getting too nosy, or sharing something with that rest of the team that an employee told them in confidence.

    The issue is whether this is negatively impacting customers and/or coworkers. In that case, it has to be addressed (as compassionately as possible). Perhaps there’s something we can do, such as referring the employee to an employee assistance program. (Many companies make this benefit available, yet many employees are unaware of it.) Or as you point out, perhaps the employee just needs to know they have the support of their boss and coworkers.

    It’s a tough situation.

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