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Tears on the job? Five strategies to buck-up

The undertrained thirty-something supervisor sat ram-rod behind her desk, hands folded on her lap.

"You ever hear of 'employment at will?" she asked,  her right eyebrow raised for punctuation.

My undertrained supervisor 
I smiled and allowed her to rattle on.

"'Employment at will' means I don't have to work with you if I don't want to.  I can fire you any time I want and I don't need a reason."

My heart pounded.  She had no reason to fire me, but would she?  Had I screwed up?  Failed her? Failed the company? My family? Myself?

I said  nothing.  My stomach tightened.  My jaw clenched.

Oh, how I hate it when I cry at work.

Humiliation is never a "teaching moment." 

I've read the essays written by the consultants who promise it's okay to cry on the job. The shedding of workplace tears demonstrates passion for work.  And our emotional outburst helps your supervisor grow into more compassionate, caring leader.

Horse pucky.

I say this.   Never, never let them see blood in the water.

Why?  Because when you do, you're dead meat.

It's a fricken' jungle out there, Bunky!  It's the wild, wild west.

And sometimes it's enough to make a grown person cry.

Some things never change. 
I don't care that this is Twenty-first Century.  I'm not stupid.  I've been in the trenches and I know the score.

You break-down at work - you invite the assumptions.

If you're a man, they assume you're a wimp. 
If you're a man -  they assume you're a wimp.

If you're a woman, they know for a fact you're crazy.
So, what's a sensitive, tender-hearted worker to do?

Don't accept abuse. 

If you're like most Americans, you 're  a strong, healthy person who functions well in most environments.  Your workplace should be healthy as well.

Hang on to this truth.  Keep your expectations high and don't accept abuse from abusive coworkers or your employer.

Sure - your job is important.  But other elements of your life are important as well.  You are more than an employee; you are a human being worthy of respect and the benefit of the doubt.

Employment should not be painful.   The social contract is straight forward; in return for pay, you deliver talent, time and intellect.  Nothing more is owed.

We live in a country where honest work is a virtue.  We believe every person has the responsibility to work and support him or herself.

We also believe our employers are responsible for a humane and civil work environment.

If your boss is not holding up his end of the contract,  I offer the following five strategies to cope.

Strategy One - Never suffer alone.  Call a friend.  
The Temptations said it first.  "When you feel the world tumbling down, reach out."  
 When your employer frightens, hurts, intimidates you,  escape to a private place and reach out for help. Each of us know a person who loves us enough to listen to our story.  Call that person.  Tell him or her what happened.

Don't feel self conscious about this.  Trust me - if you're suffering, others are suffering as well.  Many of your coworkers have done the same thing.

Why else do you suppose your boss provides a little room for (what he calls)  "private" conversations?

No one wants to see you cry like a little baby girl.

Strategy Two - Leave the premises.
If you're crying at work,  someone is bullying you.

You know how this works.  You've been around bullies all your life.

Remember what you did when you were bullied in high school?

You avoided the perpetrator.  When the bully approached, you crossed the street.   If the bully signed up for lunch at noon, you ate your lunch at eleven.

Use the same tactic at work.

Stay as far away from  your workplace bully as possible.  If you can't avoid the bully, go home.

I mean it.  Get away.

Slip out the back and hop on the bus.  Flag down a cab. Get as far away as fast as you can.  Phone human resources when you feel safe, and tell them you're not comfortable working with people who hurt you.

And stay away until things improve.

There's a name for what you're suffering;  it's called a "toxic work environment." You can sue your employer if it isn't improved.

Strategy Three - Breathe.  
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, you're trapped and can't get away.

When that happens, count to four and take a deep breath; hold it four counts, exhale to four counts.  Do this ten times - inconspicuously, if possible.

The extra oxygen will buoy you long enough to reconsider Strategy Two.

Strategy Four - Think of yourself as someone you love.
When you're abused by a coworker or humiliated by an employer, step back for a moment and consider how you would feel if if the same thing happened to your spouse, your child.

Many of us tolerate treatment we would deplore if it happened to someone we love.

Imagine your child in your situation and get angry in your own defense.

Fight back  -  and prepare for Strategy Five.

Strategy Five - Get out of Dodge. 
The lyricist Hal David wrote, "Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn.  Go!" 

My humorless thirty-something supervisor was my last boss. Even though I was a fifty-nine-year old single mother without a back-up plan - even though it was 2008 and the Great Recession was in full swing -  I quit.

My story has a happy ending.  Free from the stress of my crazy-making job, my creativity soared.

Since then,  three of my stage plays are in production.  This past year the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned my fourth.

My essays have been published by international and national media including The Guardian, Huffington Post, National Public Radio and MinnPost.

If I can do it,  so can you.

So, dry your eyes, Bunky.

Get some pride.

Shoulders back.  Stand tall.

Don't  let the bastards get you down.

Remember - "employment at will" works both ways.


  1. This is a nice commentary reminding people they have the right to be treated with respect. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in a position to just quit a job, especially if there are young kids at home. However, a person can at least start a serious job search. Additionally, people can give themselves options by saving, rather than spending. Every time you think about buying something (be it a coffee, or a new phone contract (come on, prepaid can be much cheaper if you really restrict your phone usage), or cable tv, or a new article of clothing), ask yourself: is this worth sacrificing my financial freedom? Remind yourself: every dollar you put in a retirement account saves money on what you owe the IRS that year (unless you put it in a Roth plan), plus gives you financial freedom.

  2. I worked for seven years in a large, competitive corporate health care environment. I saw other employees ignored, dismissed and criticized - usually to make the managers feel better (I was a manager too). I told myself from the beginning that it was worth staying because (I'll be truthful) the compensation was fantastic and I could be the fair and reasonable manager to my staff and maybe be an agent for change as well. I also told myself that if I was ever treated poorly, I would walk.
    It worked! Employees and some managers began coming to me to ask how did I get such consistently good staff (like they are rare gems when really they are often overlooked rocks until they are polished till they shine). I often hired staff from other departments who were "problems" and made sure they found their niche.
    I left when I was ready to retire and still get calls from colleagues asking for advice. I invested in people in the midst of the lions' den - others can become good managers too if they will think about the people with whom they work as much as they think about themselves.


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