What to Do When an Employee Starts Crying in a Disciplinary Meeting

It is uncomfortable to see a person cry, especially if something we said or did was the catalyst.  For this reason, many managers will delay difficult conversations to avoid the potential for conflict and any related emotions. However, rarely will avoidance resolve the issue. Early invention is the key to more effective constructive feedback and performance improvement.

If you find yourself in a difficult conversation or a disciplinary meeting with an employee who starts to become upset and/or cry, keep this advice in mind:

  1. Keep the meeting going. Excusing the employee and postponing the discussion may seem like a good idea, but rest assured, the next conversation will be even more difficult.
  2. Stay objective. The employee’s choices led you both to this meeting, so do not apologize or behave overly sympathetic.
  3. Be respectful and offer a tissue, and offer a moment before you continue. The individual needs to know the meeting is essential, and you are not ending it.  Check your email or some other quick task, so you can provide the employee with a moment to collect themselves.
  4. Continue the conversation where you left off before the “break.” Do not restart from the beginning, and do not summarize until the end.
  5. As in any performance-related feedback session, meeting, PIP, or discipline, be very clear about your expectations and the employee’s responsibility for meeting those expectations.
  6. Retain control of the meeting by not letting anything sidetrack you, including more emotions. If necessary, offer another moment, but do not prematurely stop the discussion.

Crying as another natural human expression, like a smile. While some people are brought to tears more quickly than others, it does not mean they are weak, just more expressive.  Crying can be a form of frustration, and it can also be a way to manipulate the situation. 

Whatever the source, the more you dwell on the act of crying, the more powerful and distracting it becomes.  It will override the purpose of your disciplinary meeting while the employee problem remains.