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Coping with the Loss of an Employee
by Bridget Weston
December 19, 2022
grieving man at desk

Guidance on Handling Grief in Your Workplace

In the wake of an employee’s death, the workplace comes to a halt. Whether the death was expected or unexpected, team members still need time to process, cope, and mourn. As Cigna explains:

“Our coworkers can be friends and even ‘extended family.’ They’re often present for important life events and may be close with our families. When we lose a coworker, we may be impacted in significant, and sometimes unexpected, ways.”

The challenge as a leader becomes: how can you keep the company moving forward when your team members are still in shock, grieving, and managing the challenges that arise during that process? This question isn’t easy to answer, but the following best practices can offer some guidance during a sad and challenging time.

Meet With Your Staff Members

The first thing to do when you learn that an employee has passed away is to let your staff know. Depending on the size of your company, you may want to have an all-hands meeting, this is likely best for a small business, or set meetings for various departments for larger organizations.

This meeting gives your deceased team member the respect they deserve and allows you to make a formal statement. The last thing you want is for the news of their passing to travel around the office as gossip.

Ahead of the meeting, it’s wise to prepare for the support your employees will need, like making sure grief counselors are present. You should also detail any steps that employees can take to help the family. Most importantly, admit if you don’t have these details and send them out when you do.

If your team member was particularly close to one or two coworkers, you may want to pull these work friends aside before the team meeting and let them know privately. They may not be able to handle a large team meeting and will need to go home for the day to sit privately with their grief. 

Look for Appropriate Ways to Support the Family

A few of your employees may want to help the grieving family and support them during this time. However, there are still guidelines for balancing professionalism in the workplace. Additionally, you don’t want to become a burden to the family or go against your employee’s wishes.

For example, it may not be appropriate to discuss details about the funeral if the family wants a small, private affair. Additionally, some families don’t want to receive flowers and could become overwhelmed if multiple employees send bouquets and gifts.

As a leader during this hard time, look for ways to provide remembrance and support the family based on their wishes. This starts with a phone call to the family to ask about ways they’re willing to accept support. That may be in the form of donations to support a favorite charity or nonprofit the employee was passionate about. It could also be in the form of a card that team members can sign.

The goal is to find a way to allow your team to honor their coworker without burdening the family.

Determine How Much Information is Appropriate

If the death is unexpected or comes with difficult details, like suicide or car accident, work with your human resources team to determine how much information should be shared.

“In very difficult situations such as suicide, homicide, or workplace death, shock, disbelief, fear, and confusion are common,” a Stanford faculty resource advises. They continue, “Open discussion can help clarify the facts, dispel rumors and facilitate the grieving process.”

Rumors travel faster than facts, and your employees might assume the worst if you don’t provide information. However, you still need to protect the privacy of your lost team member and their family.

Know That Grief Will Be Present for a Period of Time

The team at Stanford also explained that grief will affect the workplace for some time: “If the grief affects many staff members, it may take some time for things to return to business as usual. It may be impossible for some employees to work at their normal level of productivity, at least temporarily.”

What’s more, it’s critical that you acknowledge the team members who step up and offer support, to their grieving employees and to projects that may need extra help during this time. Everyone grieves in their own way, and this may be a way for some employees to manage their emotions in the workplace.

Develop a Plan to Move the Company Forward

Despite your grief, your company needs to keep moving forward. Designate someone to take over the clients or vendor relationships of the lost employee and develop a statement to notify them of the change. Additionally, your company will still need to fill out termination paperwork to formally end the relationship with the team member. This will also ensure they get the benefits owed to them.

Take this time to develop a timeline to fill their position. While you want to fill the vacancy soon so your team can resume normal operations, you don’t want to overwhelm existing employees by bringing in candidates within a few days. Additionally, you might not want to hire a new team member while your staff if grieving and place that emotional burden on them, so working with your HR team to find this balance is key.

Do Your Best Despite a Sad and Challenging Situation

While you are worried about your staff members, don’t forget to take the time to process feelings yourself. You also lost a team member and likely a friend. The company grief counselors are there to help you as well.

About the author
Bridget Weston
Bridget Weston
Bridget Weston is the CEO of the SCORE Association, where she provides executive leadership and works directly and collaboratively with the Board of Directors to establish the vision and direction of SCORE.
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