I had a conversation with a close friend yesterday about a recent death of a colleague of hers and how her employer handled the death of the employee. To say that the employer handled it wrong is an understatement.
I do not have to tell anyone reading this how much our work colleagues mean to us. How close we get to them, the bonds we form and how much their presence in our daily lives affects us. If you have been alongside a colleague while they battle a long-term illness and sadly die, or they are in the office one day and gone the next because of a sudden death, you know the impact it has had on you as far as it relates to your work experience.
Coping with the death of a colleague can be profound for employees. The intensity of reactions will vary among individuals and how you as the employer handle it is key for the remaining employees.
Below is for employers on best practices of how help your employees cope with the death of their beloved colleague:
Acknowledge the death
As silly as it feels to type this, it needs to be said. In my friend's experience there was initially zero communication from leadership on the employee's death. It was not until a few employees complained that leadership issued an email to the whole staff acknowledging the death of the employee.
At a minimum employers, send out an email that acknowledges the death of the employee. Other suggestions include holding a meeting with the employee's department and/or meeting with the deceased's closest colleagues and offering your personal sympathies.
And if that employee worked in an external customer facing role (like a sales position), please communicate their death to their external customers as well.
Accept that the work will be affected and so will productivity
I know employers do not want to hear this, but it is the truth and there is no way around it. All of your employee's will have varying levels of grief around the death, so for some their low productivity levels may last a while. Accept you might not make your quarterly numbers or your quotas this time around. It's ok, your shareholders or board of directors will understand.
Yes, in time things will return to 'normal', but it is important as the employer that employees are given latitude and time to grieve and not worried about their performance. If the death is suicide, homicide, unexpected or occurred in the workplace, the emotional trauma experienced will be more severe and the need for outside help will be greater.
Attend or Organize a memorial service
If the employees are quick to organize their own memorial service, please attend if you are in leadership. I have my own experience as the former head of HR for a large organization where my CEO sent me as the 'representative' for the company to the employee's memorial service that the staff had organized. Don't do that. Just be a decent human in your leadership role and attend.
If their colleagues are too distraught to organize a memorial, as leadership, it is important you take it upon yourselves to get something organized as quickly as possible. Gathering and grieving in communion with others is part of the healing process and can help all your employees to begin their own experience of moving forward after the death.
In the case of my friend, since the company failed to acknowledge the death at all initially, the employee's organized their own memorial and specifically asked leadership not to attend. Emotions run high when a death occurs, don't be like this employer and let this happen in your workplace.
Create a permanent tribute
You might consider a permanent tribute of some kind in your office as an acknowledgement of their presence in your workplace and contributions to the company (ex. a plaque or a small statue).
I have also seen other companies create an annual award in the person's honor to ensure their legacy continues over time at the company.
Offer professional resources
An EAP benefit is a tremendous resource for employers during this time. Send employees the EAP information and walk them through how to contact them.
Additionally, depending upon the type of death and how it occurred, you may want to consider bringing a professional grief counselor/therapist on site as a resource for your employees. And bring them in multiple times if the death was sudden, tragic, or occurred at the workplace.
Be hyper aware as time moves forward
Grief lasts for days, months, years and forever for many employees. And every employee will process the death of their colleague differently. As the employer, it is important that there be a longer term plan for checking in with your employees as time moves forward and ask them how they are processing the death of their colleague.
The following behaviors are common after a death:
Numbness | Shock | Disbelief | Anxiety | Lack of concentration | Memory lapses | Sleep disturbances | Fatigue | Change in eating habits | Irritability | Sadness | Tearfulness | Headaches | Muscle tension | Stomach ache | Frustration | Depression | Emptiness
If you see an employee in particular struggling extra hard with the death, continue to create an open environment of communication and encourage them to seek professional help.
Support, empathize and repeat
As the employer, handling the death of a colleague in the workplace should be everyone's responsibility and a united plan from all of leadership. The death of a colleague does not happen every day in our workplaces and it is a unique and horrible experience when it does happen.
As the employer, make sure your plan to handle death in your workplace is met with the utmost care, delicacy, and respect for everyone involved and your messages and actions show nothing but support and empathy for your employees who are left dealing with a gaping hole of their once colleague who they spent so much time with on a daily basis.