Grief is not one-size-fits-all. Make sure everyone gets what they need to deal with the loss of a colleague.
Imagine this scenario. The executive director of a small rehab chain is killed in a plane crash. He was a popular, charismatic leader; and staff members are devastated by his death. Senior management is sympathetic. They involve employees in determining how to honor the deceased; and they urge people to seek help if they need it. Then, very quickly, a new director is named, and the tragedy is only discussed in whispers behind closed doors. Within three months, several employees have resigned, absenteeisms are up, and employee healthcare costs have ballooned. What could have management done differently?
The death of a coworker, whether it’s sudden or expected, can be traumatic for management and staff alike. It is in everyone’s best interest if you implement a well-thought-out strategy to help deal with their grief. By developing a forward-thinking, person-centered response to a death, you can prevent a tragedy from causing long-term damage to employee morale, engagement, and retention.
Consider a few key steps:
- Respond quickly. Notify employees about the death as soon as possible. Start by informing HR and those individuals who were closest to the deceased in private before you make a general announcement. Keep it simple; don’t overshare details. If possible, let the person’s family determine what information you should share. Stay alert for rumors that might start circulating, and be prepared to set the record straight.
- Share plans. Provide information about the funeral or services that employees can attend. Consider having an organizational memorial to enable everyone to participate and grieve together. Let employees know if the family has requested donations to a charitable organization. If workers want to send notes, food, or flowers, clear this with the family and give team members details about where to have these items delivered.
- Train managers in grief response. Make sure team leaders have the skills and resources to help workers who may be hurting. Managers need to be comfortable supporting their teams, for example, by letting people share memories about the deceased, planning a tribute, taking time off to grieve, and talking about their loss. Train managers to watch for signs that someone is struggling with their grief or not coping well over time.
- Handle payroll and administrative issues delicately. You will have to clear out the deceased’s desk, collect a company laptop and/or other equipment, cancel company credit cards, and remove the person from payroll and other organizational systems. Give those involved in these activities a heads-up so they have time to prepare themselves emotionally.
- Transition in a way that respects the deceased. Discuss any outstanding projects or tasks with the late person’s supervisor and others as appropriate. Avoid immediately advertising for a replacement and/or moving someone else into the deceased’s office or desk.
- Handle benefits promptly. Following a person’s death, begin to process any benefit payments. Notify any third-party administrators that oversee your benefit plan, and locate the beneficiary designation forms for all benefits, including life insurance, accidental death insurance, and retirement plans. Contact beneficiaries and let them know how they can make a claim.
Going back to the opening scenario, perhaps the biggest error management made was to try to move on so quickly. While they encouraged employees to seek help as needed, they didn’t offer specific support or plan multiple opportunities for staff to gather, share, and commiserate. They took a one-size-fits-all approach, instead of acknowledging that grief is very personal and individualized. Finally, they didn’t give managers and team leaders the tools they needed to help their people. Easily avoidable, missteps like these can be costly and cause devastating damage to worker morale.