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A "Practical Management" Article

Managing the Workplace After the Death of an Employee

As a manager, one of the most difficult situations you may face in your career is managing the aftermath of the death of an employee. Because people experience and respond to trauma differently, your job can be that much more challenging. The sudden and permanent absence of a fellow employee who has shared the ups-and-down of work-life is often deeply stressful and destabilizing. Those who worked closely with the person will feel they've lost a member of their an extended family. Even employees who did not know or did not get on well with the employee may feel repercussions: an unrelated personal trauma or guilt over past differences with the person can be exposed and revisited. Your immediate job is to provide ways for these emotions to be recognized and channeled in a comfortable, trusted setting.

Contact COPE, Your Workplace Assistance Provider

First, you or Human Resources should contact COPE to facilitate a debriefing session. When you contact COPE, you will be asked to provide relevant information regarding the death of the employee as well as your personal assessment of the work group's reaction to the situation. Then, a one to two hour debriefing session for employees should be scheduled. Research has shown that intervention with the affected work group reduces the stressful impact of someone's death.

The meeting is typically voluntary with employees encouraged to attend. During the meeting co-workers who wish to speak should be given the opportunity to do so, to volunteer expressions of grief as well as time to share thoughts in remembrance of the person. Plans for gestures of condolence to family members can be completed at this time. Doing so helps to satisfy the need to do something to commemorate the loss. Other employees may prefer and need one-on-one attention due to the severity of their grief. Arrangement for private onsite sessions should be made in advance

Assess Your Needs and Delegate Duties

Assess your own reaction to the news in order to anticipate the need to involve other resources within the organization. Effectively managing what may be an extremely emotional situation for you and your work group may mean delegating duties associated with the death to those who are more detached from the situation. It is important to be realistic?you will not be able to think of everything or meet every need?this is an unusual work situation with few protocols. You will, however, want to thoughtfully consider the following steps:

Staff Notification

There is no way to anticipate how you will learn of the death of one of your employees. You may be the first to know from the family, but often the news will travel a more circuitous route and another employee may alert you. No matter how you learn of the incident, react quickly by notifying immediate staff and close work friends directly, and the rest of the company through written communications, such as an email or memorandum. Remember to contact staff who are away or on leave. Share whatever information you have and explain that more details will be forthcoming.

Attending the Funeral or Memorial Service

Arrange time for your staff to attend the funeral or memorial service if they would like to do so. You may need to hire a temporary worker to answer phones for a few hours so that everyone can attend. Attending the memorial service is an important part of the grieving process.

Remembering the Deceased Employee

The relationship the employee had with co-workers will often determine how the workplace decides to remember the deceased. Examples of work group responses include: creating a memorial bulletin board with photos and other meaningful images, holding a workplace event such as a luncheon or reception to honor the deceased employee. Invite family members and close friends outside of work to share their memories with the group. You might also: create a memory book filled with stories and sentiments from co-workers to give to the family, have a fundraiser to give a financial donation to a chosen charity organization, or write an article about the employee for the in-house newsletter.

Other Workplace Issues

Some of the more concrete issues which you, as the manager, will need to address are:

  • Desk and personal belongings.
    Family members or a close work friend may want to handle the task of boxing up the in dividual's personal belongings.
  • Changing the voice mail message, retrieving messages (voice mail and email), handling inquires intended for the deceased employee.
    These tasks could be shared or rotated among staff to ease the emotional burden of having to tell callers that the employee has died. Prepare a brief statement to assist those who reply to calls.
  • Staff coverage for unfinished or future work assignments.
    A temporary, short-term plan can be put into place until a more permanent decision can be made. It is best to put a temporary plan into action as soon as possible to lessen the level of anxiety that is already present among the staff. Make it clear what is needed and who is responsible.
  • Office space.
    It is best not to make any abrupt moves in regard to space changes; people need time to grieve the loss of their co- worker before seeing his or her workstation dismantled. In a month or so, there will be more acceptance of the changes which come from the loss of the co-worker.
  • The replacement employee.
    Under the best of circumstances, a new employee needs to be prepared for possible negative comparisons with the deceased employee. If the deceased was particularly well-liked, the transition will be even more difficult. It is advisable to give staff notice of the new employee's start date, relevant work background and to prepare them for the change. It is a normal part of accepting a loss to welcome someone new.
  • Loss of work productivity and motivation.
    As the manager, expect the death of an employee to result in lower productivity and motivation for a brief time. The debriefing held soon after the announcement will ease the impact of loss, but it cannot be avoided entirely. Eventually, the work unit will return to its normal level of functioning.
  • Referring to your EAP.
    If one to two months pass and you notice that one of your employees has not returned to his or her normal level of functioning and appears to still be grieving, talk to that employee, give them feedback on what you have observed and share your concerns about them. You may suggest that they seek counseling from your EAP. Often, a loss in one area of someone's life, as in the loss of a co-worker, triggers unresolved feelings about previous losses or anticipated losses. This person may need extra assistance in coping with these feelings.

Additional Resources

Necessary Losses, The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow, Viorst, Judith, Fireside, 1998. Section IV, Chapters 16 through 20 are particularly significant in regards to loss and grief.

Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, Scribner, 1997.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Kushner, Harold, Avon, 1997.

American Association of Retired Persons
601 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20049

Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
730 11th Street, NW, 3rd Floor
Washington, DC 20001
The mission of this organization is to ease impact of illness, loss and bereavement through direct services, education and advocacy.

The Hospices of the
National Capital Region
9300 Le Highway, Suite 500
Fairfax, VA 22031
Twenty-five years of providing expert care, comfort, and support for individuals and families facing terminal illness.

The Compassionate Friends
P.O. Box 3696
Oak Brook, IL 60522-3696
Support for persons who have lost a child. Chapters in D.C., Annapolis, Baltimore, Bowie, Frederick, Potomac, Waldorf, Arlington, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Leesburg, and Manassas. - An internet community of persons dealing with loss utilizing email support groups.

Written by
Nancie Bowes Kenney, M.S.W.
Edited by
Greg Kelly

CopeLine is published by:
COPE, Inc.
1120 G Street, NW
Suite 310
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 628-5100

This material may be reproduced without permission provided that it is not modified or altered in any way and acknowledgment is made to COPE, Inc.

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