When someone dies, lead the survivors

An employee’s death can leave your people tumbling through grief, denial, confusion, rage, guilt, shock and more.

Grief Steps author Brook Noel observes that people don’t know what to say or do when a co-worker dies.

Two goals:
  1. Keep the organization functioning.

  2. Help everybody work through it.
First, put the word out and help organize the group’s response.

If you oversee managers, bring them together, break the news and review the two goals, plus these guidelines:
  • Remain visible and let your emotions show. People will look to you as an example of proper conduct. Silence is easier, but it will only bring problems later on.

  • Confer to decide who will temporarily handle calls, e-mail and other inquiries. How will they respond?

  • Consider shutting down for the funeral. If you can’t shut down, cover with temps or volunteers from other units as your people help the family, attend wakes or make shiva visits.

  • Convene the group to discuss how they want to memorialize your colleague.

  • Check with your employee assistance program on what resources might be available, including counselors. Visit the Association for Death Education and Counseling at www.adec.org.

  • Leave the person’s workspace exactly as it was for at least a week. When the family comes to retrieve belongings, offer a helper. Afterward, keep the space empty awhile.

  • Let people share memories. Members of the staffer’s inner circle may need to meet weekly for coffee or lunch. They also may want to reach out to the family, who won’t receive much support after about 10 days.

  • Wait a month, if possible, before starting to hire a replacement. That helps you avoid appearing too eager to move on.
—Adapted from “Grief at Work: How to Cope When an Employee Dies,” Lucy Webb, Washington Business Journal.