I have a loud voice, I always have. I’ve been told to talk quieter for years, but I’m a big guy and it’s just how I talk. Most people get used to me and how I talk and if they don’t, I figure that’s it. I don’t deal with them more than I have to.
I’ve never been comfortable around people who cry, and now one works for me. She wasn’t always this way, but has been ever since she came back from a business trip. She cries when I ask her questions she ought to be able to answer and even jumps when I walk into her office.
It’s clear to me something happened to her but I don’t know what. I got frustrated and finally asked her what the heck was going on. She just shook her head and left the room, crying. I don’t want to fire her, but I don’t want to keep walking on eggshells either. Do I need to find out what happened or just call it quits?
You two have become the perfect storm.
Start by fixing your part of the problem. For whatever reason, you haven’t felt you needed to change. If others have told to lower your voice for years, maybe you need to listen to them.
Here’s how you can modify your volume. Imagine the person you’re speaking stands two inches from your face. If you’re like others I’ve coached, you’ll instinctively lower your volume without having to force it. Conversely, those with soft voices can speak louder if they imagine the person they’re talking with stands a football field distant from them. When they try this mental imagery, it leads them to naturally increase their volume.
At your request, I talked with your employee. She experienced a frightening event on that business trip, when she used an app to get a ride from the airport to a hotel. The man in question was loud and he caught her unawares. I believe she has a type of PTSD. For her, crying is her biological reaction to stress, an emotional reset valve. She needs counseling and time and luckily she handled it appropriately with legal authorities in the city in which it happened. Not only might firing her be the wrong thing to do, but her emotional disability might qualify her for American with Disabilities Act protection.
If it helps, you’re not the only manager unnerved by employee tears. The moment their employees tear up, some managers stop addressing even important issues and reach for tissues. Here’s what you and they need to know and do instead.
Employees cry for a variety of reasons. Some employees tear up easily because they lack self-management skills. Others employ crying as a defense mechanism for deflecting criticism or manipulating their managers. Some cry over issues that aren’t significant, but because they’re stretched thin by personal tragedy or have simply reached their breaking point.
If she tears up again, don’t overreact. Instead, treat your employee with dignity by not becoming distressed yourself. Your employee may be as or more embarrassed by her tears than you are. You might help her steady herself by briefly glancing at your papers instead of her, thus treating her and the situation as if she has a nose bleed that she needs to clean up, but doesn’t need an ambulance trip to the hospital. Hand her water instead of tissues. An offered bottle or cup of water gives her a chance to compose herself as she opens the bottle top or sips from the cup; tissues say “dry your tears.”
Next, don’t push her to tell you what’s happened if she doesn’t want to talk about it; you need to respect her boundaries. Realize that your job is to help your employee move past her emotions and back into a work focus. You don’t need to commiserate with or pity her or play therapist. You can say, “I see something upset you. Do you want a brief moment before we resume?” If your employee reacted to your words and you realize you were unnecessarily harsh or loud, you can apologize by saying, “I’m sorry I upset you.”
Do you call it quits? No. If your employee otherwise performs well, consider her tears like you would temporary static on a song playing on the radio and give her time to move through a healing process.
© 2019, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and www.workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is now a Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting at Avitus Group. Send your questions to her at Lcurry@avitusgroup.com or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.