Crying at Work, A Woman’s Burden

Employees who cry at work are routinely perceived as unprofessional and weak, and occasionally perceived as manipulative, according to research by Professor Kimberly Elsbach that is receiving significant national attention. Most recently, Forbes magazine featured her findings in its January 2011 article, “Crying at Work, A Woman’s Burden.” Elsbach explained that women are more likely to cry in the workplace than men: “Because women aren’t socialized like men they carry an extra burden of emotional labor.”

Using qualitative stories from professional workers across a variety of industries, Elsbach and her co-researchers Associate Professor Beth Bechky and alumna Annalisa Schaub ’09 developed a framework describing how and why criers are perceived at work. They discovered that there are very few situations when crying at work is acceptable, such as a death in the family or divorce. However, even in these instances, if crying is excessive—repeated or prolonged, rather than a single episode—the person may be labeled as weak, disruptive and manipulative.

Crying during a meeting or an individual performance evaluation with one’s supervisor can have the greatest negative impact. Crying due to work stress or during a disagreement with a co-worker are other circumstances when shedding tears is often judged with contempt. Elsbach presented her work on crying in the workplace at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business on April 8.

Elsbach’s first-ever academic study of passive face-time—when workers are simply seen in the office without any interpersonal interaction—recently won the “2010 Paper of the Year” award for research in Human Relations, topping more than 80 other papers. Elsbach teamed up on the study with Professor Daniel Cable of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Professor Jeffrey Sherman of the UC Davis Department of Psychology. Their research was the topic of Elsbach’s feature article in the Fall/Winter 2010 Innovator.


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