Barring unexpected sad and tragic events, is there a situation where it’s appropriate to cry at work? In a male dominated engineering culture, is there a place for tears? Last week, a new hire on my team came on-board. At the end of the week, I sat down with this new hire for a brief one-on-one. I asked how the week was going and was wondering if there were anything that was needed from me. I made some small talk and when the topic of past jobs came up, I casually asked why this new hire left the first job. The answer: failed workplace romance. Awkwardness ensued, but I think only on my part. The topic then swerved to how life took a turn for the worse afterwards, etc., etc. The voice started to quaver. The muscles around the eyes started to stiffen, as if trying to hold back tears. At this point, I’m thinking to myself “too much information”, but really had no other choice than to play the temporary role of a silent psychologist.
The new hire continued to talk about how the previous job’s manager style was totally opposite, how that manager wanted speed over quality and how the new hire is a very detail oriented person, wanting to know why the transistor was sized this way, why we’re using that sort of biasing circuit over another, why, why, why. It seemed obvious that the last job hadn’t gone so well. The one-sided conversation subsequently touched on the sincere wishes of this new hire to do a good job and how past experiences are creating a bit of anxiety and nervousness. A bit of sniffling started. Lips trembled slightly.
Sensing that I’ve probably waited too long before speaking, I was looking for a way to graciously end this episode that would be acceptable to both sides. On my side, I was well into the territory of feeling uncomfortable. I really didn’t want things to progress to the point where tears would start to fall. I also didn’t want to abruptly end the conversation for fear of making the new employee feel ashamed or embarrassed. I offered some words of encouragement and kept things fairly generic and professional without veering into the personal.
There was a moment of silence. The new hired appeared to want to continue with the venting. Luckily for me, HR knocked on the door to inform me that an interview candidate had just arrived. Saved! After the interview I did think about whether I should invite this employee to pick up where we left off, to allow the venting to complete itself so work can be the primary focus. However, I chose, wisely I think, not to pursue this further.
Before I started as a manager, I did try to prepare myself to deal with the soft side of management. I even flew to the US to take a two-day management course. Dealing with tears, however, wasn’t on the curriculum.
What The Flux is a semi-regular feature on EngineeringBlogs.org that follows the follies and jollies of an engineer in industry, yours truly.