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my boss called me “overly emotional” because I cried at work when I thought my grandmother was dying

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A reader writes:

As a sophomore in college, I was fortunate enough to find an internship in an industry I was very excited about. The company was small — the owner, three employees, and me.

About halfway through the four months that I worked there, my family dealt with a serious crisis — my grandmother was hospitalized after taking a bad fall and fracturing one of her vertebrae. The situation was initially very serious and potentially life-threatening (she has other health complications) so my family decided to notify me despite the fact that I was at work. I am very close with my grandmother and appreciated being clued into the situation.

I do not normally check my phone throughout the workday but do generally glance at it during my lunch break. When I noticed missed calls from various family members, I became very worried something had gone wrong. I stepped outside to make a quick call and was updated on the situation. My mom promised to call back if anything serious happened. I moved my phone to a drawer in my desk, instead of in my purse, where I would hear it vibrating if someone called again, but otherwise did not check it. That gave me sufficient peace of mind to try and complete the rest of the workday with as much normalcy as possible.

Towards the end of what was, I think understandably, a very stressful day, I encountered a pretty serious issue in a project I had spent most of the day working on. My boss expected the deliverable by end of day, but the mistake made that unlikely to happen. When I let him know what was going on, he was noticeably frustrated. Unfortunately, my eyes welled, and I shed a few (silent!) tears.

In response, my boss kindly inquired about what was wrong. I was mortified and immediately apologized, informed him my family was dealing with a health crisis, and asked if I could step out to collect myself before concluding the discussion. At the time, he was very understanding, and we were able to finish the conversation productively about 15 minutes later. I thought I handled my embarrassing and inappropriate reaction as best as I could and was grateful for his kindness.

Here is the grind: his main feedback in my exit interview was “you are overly emotional.” I asked if he could walk me through examples so I could avoid repeating my mistakes. He only identified the instance above! He told me that “crying in the workplace is unacceptable and although a family emergency is hard to deal with, life happens, and you should not expect your firm to accommodate your personal problems.”

Am I crazy to think that my emotions getting away from me, briefly, in an extreme context does not make me deserving of the overly emotional label? Did I not handle the situation properly once the tears had already been shed? In hindsight, I shouldn’t have checked my phone, as then this whole situation could have been avoided. Regardless, I have a hard time not feeling as though the label has something to do with my gender. Was my boss overly harsh? Or did I truly commit an error grave enough to warrant such a charged label?

Nah, you didn’t do anything wrong here. Your manager was being an ass.

I mean, yes, in an ideal world where we had full control over all emotional responses, one would not cry at work. But we are humans, and worrying about a loved one’s life-threatening medical emergency is a very understandable time to not have perfect control over your emotions.

And this wasn’t you loudly sobbing in the middle of an open office or repeatedly disrupting meetings by breaking down. This was you silently tearing up, once, in a moment of stress.

There are some people like your manager who will judge you for one instance like this, decide you’re “too emotional” because you had a normal human reaction when worried about a family member, and forever see you that way. It’s good to be aware they’re out there, just like it’s good to be aware there are people who will judge you for taking sick leave or for not drinking at a company happy hour.

The fact he knows he was concluding you were “too emotional” based on a single instance and still chastised you for it (rather than interrogating his own assumptions once you asked for examples) indicates this is probably a particular hang-up for him.

He clearly thought he was delivering some important life lesson, but what he said was gross and wrong. “You should not expect your firm to accommodate your personal problems” is true when it comes to, like, it not being okay to spend your work day fighting on the phone with your boyfriend — but a good employer will accommodate you when you’re having a family health crisis.

It’s certainly true that chronic crying at work can be a problem, because it’s disruptive and can make it hard for people to give you necessary feedback. But that wasn’t this.

Here’s a Q&A I did with the New York Times about crying at work.

my boss called me “overly emotional” because I cried at work when I thought my grandmother was dying was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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