Nine years ago, my husband died unexpectedly. His death plunged my life and my company into months of chaos.
Since I own a business, my husband’s death didn’t just affect me. It had a tremendous impact on my employees, as well as my husband’s coworkers. He had worked for a small business for several years, and their family-like atmosphere was upended by the news of his passing.
There is a lot written on the subject of bereavement, but we’re often not truly prepared to cope with it in our businesses.
Will one of your employees die?
As our workforce ages, it increases the possibility that our employees or coworkers will die. According to the 2010 Health Industry Forum:
- 627,000 working age adults die each year
- By 2030, 20% of our workforce will be 65 and older
While none of us know when, or even if, this is something we’ll have to cope with, there are some simple things we can do or think about ahead of time to be prepared.
You probably haven’t done enough to prepare for death in your workplace:
As employers, when we prepare policies to address death in the workplace, all we usually do is create bereavement leave, granting employees a number of days off, scaled to the closeness of the relative that died.
That is generally the end of our preparation. My experience has taught me that this is not enough.
When a coworker dies, or when a coworker is catapulted into grief due to the loss of a loved one, it pays for us to be prepared to handle the situation with grace, respect, and wisdom.
Keep beneficiary designations updated:
Many times, employees fill out their beneficiary forms for life insurance, 401(k), health medical savings accounts, etc. upon enrollment, and then forget about them.
Employees go through transitions in their lives, such as separations, divorces, and even deaths in their own families, which can alter this information — but they fail to complete the forms.
Asking employees to review and update this information annually can prevent problems.
How & what to communicate when an employee dies:
Businesses become like family for many of us, and when a family member dies, or is experiencing the death of a loved one, it’s natural that we all want to know what’s happened.
As an employer, you want to provide information to your staff — especially to stop the rumor mill. But it is up to the family of the deceased to determine what information they want to make public.
- Remember that HIPAA laws apply to individuals’ rights to privacy, even after their death: Only release information that the family wants you to provide, or information that has already been made public through other sources, such as an obituary. .
- Tell people from outside your company: Keep in mind that your employee may have had business relationships with people outside your company. You’ll want to inform them as well. It’s better to be proactive about getting the word out, so your customers or vendors are aware; this will cut down on awkward inquiries later on.
Your entire workforce needs support when an employee dies:
When an employee dies, their co-workers often need some help with grief.
The deceased’s duties still need to be performed, but it feels insensitive to place an ad for their job the day after they die. Companies often shift duties around to others until sufficient time has passed to refill the position.
Involving your staff in decisions about how to handle the extra work can give them something positive to do and make the transition easier for everyone. Employees may feel uncomfortable seeing someone else in the deceased’s chair soon after their passing.
As much as possible, allow for a gradual transition of the office and duties.
If the deceased is a supervisor:
When a supervisor dies, employees may be torn between their grief, and their uneasiness about their own future. In this circumstance, it’s extremely important to assure the staff that their own situations will be handled with thoughtfulness, and that the company is concerned for them as well.
Funerals & memorials:
It’s likely that when an employee dies, many of their co-workers will want to go to the funeral. If possible, it’s nice to allow them to go on paid time.
If your staff can’t attend the funeral, it may be good to organize a memorial service at the workplace so they can process their grief together.
You can also create a memory book with pictures, mementos, and employees’ memories and stories about the deceased. This can be given to the grieving family, which is a good way to help your staff feel like they’re doing something to help ease the pain of their coworker’s passing.
You can also make a plaque in the deceased’s honor, or event plant a tree in their memory, if your facilities allow for it.
Provide your staff with grief counseling:
Depending on the circumstances, it might be appropriate to bring in a grief counselor for your employees.
When my husband passed away, a grief counselor came onsite to talk to my staff before I returned, to assist them with their own grief, and to advise them on how they could support me through the process.
The hospice program is a great resource for this.
How to help employees when they lose a loved one:
During a tragedy, we all feel better if we can do something to help.
Oftentimes, the bereaved is in a state of shock and can’t think of what they need to do. This is a chance for us to do workplace tasks to proactively help them.
- Make sure they are aware of their benefits, and assist them with any paperwork that needs to be done.
- Designate one or two co-workers to check in on the bereaved daily to see how they’re doing, and to find new ways to help them.
- Allow your employees to donate their own paid time off to the bereaved, giving their coworker breathing room and some extra security when grief gut-punches them or they have to take care of business.
Practical logistics when an employee dies:
Certain things have to be taken care of when someone passes away, and this doesn’t just apply to family of the departed, it also applies to the employer of the deceased.
If your employee dies, you have to:
- Process them as if they’ve been terminated
- Create a final paycheck, and give it to their spouse or the person handling their estate. According to your policies, you will also pay them for unused vacation or PTO
- Retrieve any company property, such as keys or credit cards
You will also have to return the employee’s personal items — which can be a very difficult thing to do.
Have the employee’s supervisor and someone close to the deceased, such as a family friend, gather up their personal items and make arrangements to return them to the appropriate person.