Research

Clinton’s Tears Shed Light on Crying at Work

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s show of emotion before the New Hampshire presidential primary—when her eyes welled up and her voice quivered in response to a voter’s question about how she kept going on the campaign trail—is said to have helped her at the polls. It also shed light on the issue of crying on the job, which Professor Kimberly Elsbach has been studying.

Elsbach has been interviewing women about crying at work and its repercussions as part of a bigger effort to understand the impacts. Elsbach was quoted in the Sacramento Bee, The New York Post and other press reports related to Clinton’s crying episode. Elsbach said the context of Clinton’s emotion moment was critical: she had been the target of attacks in a recent debate; she was responding on a very personal level to a personal question, and she doesn’t have a reputation of being overly emotional, all of which revealed a softer side of the senator that many voter’s hadn’t seen before.

But that’s not the typical experience women have when they tear up on the job, according to Elsbach, who has started a year-long analysis with Associate Professor Beth Bechky to better document the career impacts of crying. Elsbach said has been surprised at how severe women felt the consequences were, some reporting that their tears had cost them promotions, plum assignments and coworkers’ respect.

While many studies show that women are more likely than men to shed tears during the workday, Elsbach plans to further investigate the circumstances in which crying may or may not be damaging professionally. Elsbach is concerned that some managers, who feel crying is unprofessional, may be underutilizing good performers because their tears have been misinterpreted as emotional instability.

One of her preliminary observations concerns the amount of time and energy women spend trying not to cry in front of people at work—running out of meetings, holing up in the office with the door closed, or hiding in a bathroom stall.

“It’s an enormous burden women have that men don’t have,” she said. She explained that crying is perceived more positively if it is viewed as sincere rather than manipulative, and if it seems justified, such as the result of bullying. Hillary’s tears appear to have been seen as both sincere and justified, Elsbach said.

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