When a colleague dies


If you’ve ever experienced the loss of a loved one you know that the pain is gripping and a dark cloud can loom over you in their absence. This is no different when the death experienced is a work colleague; it can hit individuals and the organization equally as hard. Overtime colleagues become part of your work-family, your operations, and your culture. They may even hold a critical role or have established themselves in a way that is irreplaceable. At work you spend long hours together, you laugh together, learn together, overcome challenges and even celebrate victories, so it can be very difficult to face the same environment without that person.

What if that person is a leader in the organization? They may have lead critical advancements in the company, contributed to significant successful milestones, or impacted many lives through mentorship and guidance. There is personal pain tied to any significant loss and unfortunately the business doesn’t just stop when loss occurs. The challenge is in the transition. So how do you gracefully fill the void and provide support without overlooking the reality of this natural pain?

Taking careful measures to your approach will assist the organization in showing respect while moving forward at the same time. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Don’t neglect the obvious – promptly communicate the death to both the organization and your customers (those who are directly impacted). Prepare an email for internal staff that one, highlights this person and their contributions to the company and secondly, offer counseling for those who are greatly impacted by their grief using the internal or external services as outlined by your company’s Employee Assistance Program. Prepare a separate email for customers/clients who are directly affected by this loss. This correspondence should respectfully highlight the individual’s role in the company, provide a new point of contact, and explain any changes in their services as a result of this loss.

  2. Be prepared – Train all levels of management on how to deal with grief and loss (Sign up for: “How to Handle Grief in the Workplace”). This includes how to communicate with clarity and compassion, the importance of flexibility and patience, and how to fairly manage employees who are grieving. Employees who lose a manager may also be concerned about job stability. Be prepared to answer those questions promptly so those uncertainties do not start to manifest in poor performance.

  3. Create a safe environment – Offer onsite group counseling to talk about major issues like lack of focus or loss of productivity. This will offer a safe place for individuals to openly communicate similar struggles and get helpful tips (led by a professional) to overcome these challenges.

Lastly, although not a part of the workplace but still equally as important, involve the family. Contact the family immediately and send a personal note, flowers, or meals. In addition, it would be tremendously beneficial if HR or a direct supervisor proactively reached out to the family or spouse about the employee’s benefits; provided the insurance carrier’s contact info, and remained a point of contact while they sort out any matters pertaining to the employee’s survivor or employment benefits.

Managing death in the workplace can be uncomfortable, but with a plan in place, awareness among leaders and open door communication, your organization can be both sensitive and supportive during this very difficult time.


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Karen Millsap’s primary goal is to empower everyone to live an undefeated life.

 

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