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

Many managers delay difficult conversations to avoid the potential for conflict and any related emotions. However, avoidance rarely resolves anything. And the longer you wait, the more challenging the conversation and the harder it is to solve. Early intervention is always the key to more effective 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. Excusing the employee may seem like a good idea, but the problem remains. The follow up discussion – and the dread in between – will make it harder on you both.
  2. Stay objective and don’t apologize or behave overly sympathetic.
  3. Be respectful and offer a tissue and a few moments before you continue. Check your email or some other quick task, so you can allow the employee to collect themselves.
  4. Continue the conversation where you left off. Do not restart from the beginning, and do not summarize until the end.
  5. Be clear about your expectations and the employee’s responsibility for meeting those expectations.
  6. Retain control of the meeting by sticking to your agenda.
  7. Offer another moment, if necessary, but avoid terminating the discussion.
  8. Written documentation of the issue(s) and the employee’s next steps is important, either in the meeting (if you are using performance plan or written disciplinary warning), or via email or memo afterward.

Keep in mind that crying is a natural human response, like a smile. Some people are more emotive than others and may cry more easily. In our society, gender roles and culture may influence expression, too. Crying has many reasons, including frustration, stress, sadness, empathy, and reflex from pain. People also have been known to use it to gain attention or manipulate a situation.  

As difficult as it can be, continue the meeting. Balance your empathy with directness and focus on the issue and the solution. 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 the meeting while the problem remains. 

On a side note, an employee experiencing uncontrollable crying in different contexts could indicate they need emotional or mental health support. Be sure your EAP (employee assistance program) or 2-1-1 information is readily available to all employees. Consult with HR or an expert for further guidance. 

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