As a manager, one of the most difficult situations you may face in your career is handling the death of an employee. Any death can be keenly felt by co- workers, but a death in the workplace carries special responsibilities for the manager. And because people experience and respond to trauma differently, your job can be that much harder. The sudden and permanent absence of a fellow employee who has shared the ups-and-down of work-life is often deeply stressful and destabilizing. Those who worked closely with the person may feel they've lost a member of their extended family. Even employees who did not know or did not get on well with the employee may feel repercussions, such as guilt over past differences with the person. Your immediate job is to provide ways for these emotions to be recognized and channeled in a comfortable, trusted setting.
Contact COPE, Your Workplace Assistance Provider
First, you or a Human Resources representative should contact COPE to facilitate a debriefing session. Our staff is trained to respond to critical incidents. When you contact COPE, you will be asked to provide relevant information regarding the death of the employee, as well as your personal assessment of the work group's reaction to the situation. Then, a one- to two-hour debriefing session for employees should be scheduled. Research has shown that intervention with the affected work group reduces the stressful impact of someone's death.
The meeting is typically voluntary with employees encouraged to attend. During the meeting co-workers who wish to speak should be given the opportunity to do so, to volunteer expressions of grief or share thoughts in remembrance of the person. Gestures of condolence to the deceased's family members can be made at this time. Doing so helps to satisfy the need to do something to commemorate the loss. Other employees may prefer or need one-on-one attention due to the severity of their grief. Arrangement for private onsite sessions should be made in advance .
Assess Your Needs and Delegate Duties
Effectively managing what could be an extremely emotional situation for you and your work group may mean delegating duties associated with the death to those who are more detached from the situation. It is important to be realistic; you will not be able to think of everything or meet every need. This is an unusual work situation with few established protocols. You will, however, want to thoughtfully consider the following steps:
•There is no way to anticipate how you will learn of the death of one of your employees. You may be the first to know as the result of a call from the family, but often the news travels a more circuitous route. Another employee may alert you. No matter how you learn of the incident, react quickly by notifying immediate staff and close work friends directly, and the rest of the company through written communications, such as an email or memorandum. Remember to contact staff who are away or on leave. Share whatever information you have and explain that more details will be forthcoming.
The Funeral or Memorial Service
•Arrange time for your staff to attend the funeral or memorial service if they would like to do so. You may need to hire a temporary worker to answer phones for a few hours so that everyone can attend. Attending the memorial service is an important part of the grieving process.
Some of the more practical issues you, as the manager, may need to attend to include:
- The handling of desk contents
and personal belongings.
Family members or a close work friend may want to handle the task of
packing the individual's personal belongings.
- Changing the voice mail message, retrieving messages (voice mail and email),
handling inquires intended for the deceased employee.
These tasks could be shared or rotated among staff to ease the emotional
burden of having to tell callers that the employee has died. Prepare
a brief statement to assist those who reply to calls.
coverage for unfinished or future work assignments.
A temporary, short-term plan can be put into place until a more permanent
decision can be made. It is best to put a temporary plan into action
as soon as possible to lessen the level of anxiety that is already present
among the staff. Make it clear what is needed and who is responsible.
It is best not to make any abrupt moves in regard to space changes;
people need time to grieve the loss of their co- worker before seeing
his or her workstation dismantled. In a month or so, there will be more
acceptance of the changes which come from the loss of the co-worker.
Under the best of circumstances, a new employee needs to be prepared
for possible negative comparisons with the deceased employee. If the
deceased was particularly well-liked, the transition will be even more
difficult. It is advisable to give staff notice of the new employee's
start date, relevant work background and to prepare them for the change.
It is a normal part of accepting a loss to welcome someone new.
of work productivity and motivation.
As the manager, expect the death of an employee to result in lower productivity
and motivation for a brief time. The debriefing held soon after the
announcement will ease the impact of loss, but it cannot be avoided
entirely. Eventually, the work unit will return to its normal level
If one to two months pass and you notice that one of your employees
has not returned to his or her normal level of functioning and appears
to still be grieving, talk to that employee, give them feedback on what
you have observed and share your concerns about them. You may suggest
that they seek counseling. Often, a loss in one area of
someone's life, as in the loss of a co-worker, triggers unresolved feelings
about previous losses or anticipated losses. This person may need extra
assistance in coping with these feelings.
Failing to name a beneficiary to a pension plan, a 401(k) or life insurance policy or to review and update those documents periodically can create a mess for a deceased employee's heirs. As this Wall Street Journal article reports, a carelessly named beneficiary on a financial account can cause a loved one to be disinherited, a disabled child to lose government benefits, and heirs to be slapped with a big tax bill. As manager, you can help by reminding employees to keep important benefit information current.
If you'd like to know more about how to plan for the unexpected, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Nancie Bowes Kenney, M.S.W. Edited by Greg Kelly.