someone accused me of crying at work — but I didn’t

A reader writes:

I am a graphic designer at a big consulting firm. I have only been here 6 months, so I’m slowly building my reputation. I was working on a big video production project with a managing consultant, and 4 days before their pitch to the client, his boss (a partner at the firm), basically changed everything so I would have to re-do the whole project. Therefore, I needed to sacrifice my weekend (our meeting was Thursday and the pitch was Monday) to work on this before their deadline. I was okay with working over the weekend — I am non-exempt and got overtime. I clocked in 62 hours that week working on this project, and I really do believe I went above and beyond expectations to make sure they got their video in time for the client presentation (I did deliver the video on time and the client loved it).

Here is the perplexing part. Today, my supervisor asked me if I cried at the meeting last week. Because I put in so much overtime, my supervisor connected with the senior partner on the project, asking why they decided to go in a completely different direction so late in the process. I was told that the senior partner replied that if I wanted to work at the firm, I needed to stop bursting into tears when they gave me feedback. I guess the managing consultant I was working with told the senior partner that I cried when I received feedback to change the video completely — which is absolutely 100% NOT true. I am angry that the managing partner lied about my reaction, dragging my reputation through the dirt. I have other coworkers who saw me directly after the meeting who can vouch that I did not leave the room with tears streaming down my face.

I am angry and I want to directly confront the managing consultant about his lie about me losing my professionalism in front of him – but doing just that would probably prove that I am unprofessional. What do I do? Do I just let it go and let my reputation get bashed?

I wrote back and asked: “Do you know why he said that? Was your reaction upset, just no tears?” She replied:

I really don’t. I took a couple of deep breaths, so I was quiet for a little bit (maybe 1-2 minutes?), but after I collected myself, I did start making suggestions and offering what I could do to realistically accommodate their suggestions at the last minute. I suppose this could be interpreted as “fighting tears” minus the moisture of the eyes, but definitely not “bawling,” as it was described to me.

My gut reaction is that the manager didn’t want to take responsibility for going in the wrong direction with the video project so late in the game in the first place, and blamed my reaction as a reason contributing to his decisions, but I’m really not sure why he would just blatantly lie about something like this. Prior to this incident, I actually thought we had a good rapport and he was very easy to work with – so I’m at a loss why he would say something like this about me.

Okay, that context helps. Obviously, you’d know if you were crying, and you weren’t. But the reaction that you describe — getting quiet for a couple of minutes, taking deep breaths, and then collecting yourself — reads strongly as “intensely upset.” Now, it’s not bawling; it’s not even crying. But you know how people sometimes describe someone as “yelling” at them when the person isn’t really yelling but is using an angry/serious tone? I suspect it’s the same thing here. You were visibly upset, and that’s what he was conveying, just with sloppy language.

Really sloppy language, yes. But I doubt he intended to lie; he just described it in bad shorthand.

I would go back to your manager and say something like this: “I was taken aback when you told me that Bob said I ‘burst into tears’ in that meeting. I wasn’t even close to tears, and I’m not sure why he interpreted it that way. I did feel upset for a minute or two, but there were certainly no tears, or anything approaching tears. I realize that I shouldn’t have even let myself look upset, and I’m going to work on that in the future because I know it’s important to project calm, even in the face of frustration — but I really don’t want it out there that I cry at feedback, because I don’t.”

A key piece of this is that you’re making it clear that you do know that calmness in these situations is important and you’re going to work on projecting it. The reason that’s important is that if you don’t say it, your manager may wonder if you don’t get that and so she needs to watch out for it with you in the future. By letting her know that you’re on the same page as her about that — that you’re on top of any issues here — you defuse the need for her to be on top of it.

Beyond that, I’d just let it go. I wouldn’t confront the managing consultant about what he said. I don’t see any good that can come of that, and I really don’t think he set out to lie about you. I’d just make a point of doing excellent work and showing that you’re calm and unflappable when he and others are around … which is going to serve you better than a confrontation with him.

And while we’re on the topic of tears at work, some previous posts on crying at work:

should I apologize to my boss for crying in front of her?
I cried in an interview and later accepted the job
crying at work and smart bosses

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