"Tragic Death of an Olympic Luge Athlete." "College Professor Guns Down Colleagues." "Plane Flies Into IRS Building, Killing IRS Employee." Recent headlines such as these remind us that human tragedies occur every day, touching not only the victims and their families, but also their co-workers and employers.
HR plays a key role following the unexpected death of an employee. Among the responsibilities HR may be tasked with: serving as a liaison between the company and the family of the deceased, helping co-workers deal with their grief, helpingensure that operations continue to run smoothly, and handling practical matters (e.g., processing benefits paperwork) in a timely manner.
Balancing Grief With Business Needs
Contact the family to express condolences on behalf of the organization. Inquire about funeral arrangements and possible donations to favorite charities, and then forward that information to employees, with the family's permission. Note: Instruct employees to go through HR with questions about funeral or memorial services or where to send floral arrangements; do not give out the family's personal contact information without their permission.
Ask the family how they would like the employee's personal belongings to be handled; offer to pack up personal belongings and have them shipped to the family, or accommodate the family's wish to come in themselves to gather up the belongings, perhaps on a weekend or after hours.
Allow employees who request time off to attend the funeral to do so, if possible, or consider holding a special organization-wide memorial service at a later date, if appropriate. Consider attending the wake or funeral yourself as a representative of the company, even if you did not know the employee personally.
Many employers have a bereavement policy that's limited to the death of an immediate family member. However, you might consider relaxing such a policy to allow employees bereavement leave for a co-worker, supervisor, or direct report, on a case-by-case basis.
Make yourself available to employees who want to come in to talk, to share their grief, etc. Have information on hand to give them about outside resources they can contact if they feel they need extra help and support (e.g., your, mental health professionals listed on your company's medical plan).
In a case where the entire workforce may be affected (e.g., a workplace shooting or other act of), it's advisable to bring in outside grief counselors who can be available on-site for a designated period of time.
While recognizing the need for work to continue smoothly, advise managers to use discretion in how stringently they want to hold grieving employees to their normal deadlines and performance standards immediately following a co-worker's death.
Practical Considerations: A Checklist
Here are a few nitty-gritty responsibilities you must not overlook following the death of an employee.
Locate the beneficiary designations for all.
Work with your benefits company(ies) to process benefits paperwork, including life insurance, 401(k) plan, accidental death and dismemberment, etc.
Terminate health insurance according to the policy, and send out COBRA paperwork for dependents of the employee.
Check state law regarding final pay for deceased employees, as well as payment of accrued PTO or sick/vacation time.
Follow your regularchecklist to address the return of company equipment, keys, etc.
Meet with the employee's manager regarding finding a permanent replacement for the employee.
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