Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Death in the Workplace (Unabridged)

balancing compassion with compliance

In my career, I’ve worked along size many coworkers who were grieving the loss of a loved one. It’s fairly common. Actually, it’s unavoidable. Death does not care that there’s a big meeting next week or that the tickets for the family vacation are already paid in full (and non-refundable) – death happens.

For a manager, it’s often awkward and uncomfortable trying to balance the sensitivity to an employee’s grieving process with the reality that there are still expectations that must be met.  Keep in mind, however, that the employee is keenly aware and just as uncomfortable with those competing concerns, but they have the added stress of dealing with the personal loss as well.

Not quite as common is when the workplace grief is due to the death of a co-worker. The questions of what the manager needs to balance goes from two issues to six:
  • How do you deal with the feelings of loss that the other employees may be experiencing?
  • With several (if not all) of the staff experiencing some level of grief, how severe will the impact be on the business operations?
  • How will employees deal with the disruption of business operations and potentially increased workload?
  • What is the best way for the manager or organization to express compassion to the deceased employee’s family during this time?
  • Are there legal or logistic issues the manger is responsible for? (and last, but certainly not least)
  • How are YOU coping with the loss?
According to a 2003 study conducted for the Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Inc. the financial impact to the employer of grief in the workplace is estimated to be more than $75 billion. Today, that cost would be much higher.We spend as many or more waking hours with our coworkers than with our closest friends or, in some cases, even our family. It’s important not to under estimate the emotional impact that the death of a coworker can have on staff and the business. Most companies have bereavement policies that give an employee anywhere from 1 to 5 days of paid leave for the death of a family member. But when few will extend beyond blood relatives to even include close friends, fewer still (none I’ve experienced) will include language or scenarios about time off to deal with the grief associated with a workplace death. 

The reality is, while it may very well be an emotional necessity to give the staff a few days off, business necessities will likely make that impossible. Rather than trying to create a policy that covers every unpredictable variable in that situation, work with other managers to come up with a preparedness checklist that will guide you through certain steps that you should take and prompt a dialog to help you make decisions about how your organization wants to respond in certain situations ahead of time. The following lists are not all inclusive but should give you a starting place to begin building your workplace death preparedness checklist.
Initial Communication and Response
  • Know your organization's policy on bereavement and personal time and be ready to explain the policy to the employee. Have the contact/policy information for you company EAP on hand (attach handouts or summaries of each to this preparedness checklist)
  • As soon as possible after you learn of the loss, notify Human Resources and inform those with the most critical need to know first and then communicate to employees
  • Expect sadness and tears. Extend the offer for counseling for employees through the EAP
  • Respect the confidentiality the deceased’s personal or medical information unless permission has been given by the family to share it. Be sure to ask the family explicitly what can be shared and what is confidential
Keeping Business Moving
  • Expect the best from grieving employees, but be prepared to accept less for a short time
  • As work shifts to other employees, remember to thank those employees for taking on the additional work
  • Ask what you can do to help: Time off? Schedule adjustment? Help with the extra work?
  • Ensure that phone calls, voicemails, e-mail messages and other communications are intercepted re-directed appropriately
  • Contact direct relationship of the deceased and reassign them to others;
Making Arrangements and Preparing for Services:
  • As sensitively as possible ask the family for a single contact person who can provide funeral details, answer questions about the arrangements and be the designee  benefits procedures when it’s time for paperwork to be completed
  • Designate a single internal contact person (likely HR) for employees to go to with questions or concerns about arrangement to prevent employees from trying to contact the family directly
  • Help organize a group acknowledgment for the family (a group card, flowers, group attendance at the funeral, etc.).
  • Determine where flowers or other preferred offerings are to be sent as consistent with the  family’s wishes; communicate to employees as appropriate;
  • Considering the impact on business, recognize that many employees may feel a need to attend the services and be as flexible as possible;
Following the Funeral:
  • Check with Human Resources on your state law regarding final pay for deceased employees and provide them with whatever necessary to calculate final pay and close out benefits
  • Follow the normal termination checklist to ensure equipment, keys, credit cards, etc. are accounted for and security issues are addressed
  • Ask family how they want to retrieve/receive the personal belongings of their loved one; offer to do it for them. The family may not want to be involved
  • Keep in touch with family as appropriate.
Just thinking about each of those questions can be overwhelming enough in the hypothetical. When the situation becomes real, being prepared will give you a sense of control when you’ll need it most.  

Web only special:
You know that you’re supposed to say or write something thoughtful, yet business-appropriate to the grieving family of your recently departed staff member but finding those words can be challenging. While personalization is important, here is a sample letter that can guide you through the right sentiment.
Dear ________________:

The news of Parker’s death found us unprepared for the loss of a valued colleague. The business relationship and personal friendship many of us had with Parker have been a pleasure and source of enrichment to all of us. We shall miss Parker greatly.

Parker was held in the highest regard by our employees and by others in our industry. Parker set an example that will continue to be an inspiration to us all. Please accept our sincere sympathy for your loss.

Sometime soon your family will receive benefit information, forms and other paperwork to facilitate closure around Parker’s job with us. In the meantime, please call me if you have any questions or if we may be of assistance.


(name and title)