A Coworker Died? What do we do/say

It happens. Someone you work with everyday is very late, has not called, and there’s no excess traffic. When coworkers die, it impacts an organization. How the death is handled can be very critical to both current employees and the family of the employee who now rests in peace.

Many companies do not have policies to deal with employee death and most HR departments will alert the various Employee Assistance Programme representatives and deploy said personnel to the affected team. However, it is the actions of management and the messages communicated that will have the greatest impact on the memories of how the company handles the loss of an employee. Handle it badly or say the wrong thing, EVERYONE remembers. Do the right thing and you can shape employee culture forever.

Here are a few tips, a guide if you will, for management:

  • Reach out to the Family: The head of the company AND the deceased employee’s direct manager should make personal contact with the employee’s family. A phone call is a good first step, but a visit to the house is an over the top gesture that will make a statement – this company cares.
  • Allow a Moment to Breathe & Grieve: Many companies get this wrong. In the hours it can take to find “the policy” or “remember what was done last time” teammates of the deceased begin to build resentment about “inaction”. While “the policy” is being located/formulated have the manager of the affected team call a meeting to allow direct co-workers to air their views/ pray or have a moment of silence. It is important to both ask questions and set some limits for same: “We are here and can take a few minutes to recognise the loss of our team member. How would you like to do this?”  Failure to set limits can have an adverse effect on the day’s already diminished productivity and no one wants to be the manager who has to interrupt a prayer or story to say “back to work!”
  • Create a Living Tribute: For at least a week after the passing of a colleague, have an area where he/she can be remembered. Maybe its a plaque or sign on their desk or possibly flowers placed on the now empty workstation. Ensure you COMMUNICATE with colleagues so they are aware of the tribute (no one wants housekeeping to throw out the sign/flowers). Make sure a time limit is also communicated so staff can know the tribute will not live forever. Encourage those closest to him/her to create the tribute (so its tasteful) and welcome them to dismantle it as well so they are involved in the beginning and end of the process;
  • A Mighty Meeting: It is important for those with “weight” in the company (Managing Director, CEO, etc) to have a meeting with the affected team soon after the passing of the employee. At this meeting it should be stated – “I share your loss and have been in touch with the family”. At this meeting, ideas can be shared about how a greater tribute (donation to family/ charity etc) can be made should also be discussed; and last but not least…
  • HOLD OFF ON IMMEDIATE REPLACEMENTS: Vacancy notices and temporary staff must be carefully planned and timed. Have the temp come in after the team has had their moment to grieve – ensure they are introduced and UNDERSTAND they are “filling the shoes” of a team member that has passed away. This will build and create understanding on both sides and prevent the new employee from being the target of resentment of hurt.

While this list is not comprehensive, its a start. Most importantly, understand a loss of a coworker is a loss of a family member. Their presence and spirit will be missed and its up to those left behind to create  an atmosphere of empathy that will allow for productivity to continue without the tone of resentment that can be  bread by apparent inaction.



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3 Responses to “A Coworker Died? What do we do/say”

  1. Kevin Says:

    In the 7 years that I worked at my last place of employment, which is large organisation with over 1500 staff spread over 18 or 19 locations, we had, in the locations where I worked, about 4 deaths among members of staff. That was fairly hard to deal with, especially the ones i new well.

    Even harder to deal with were the 3 mothers (in one year) who lost babies shortly after birth. In that case, there is virtually nothing you can say to them.

    I don’t know what support systems they had in place for them (I don’t think there is an active EAP system in place), but I know that from talking to one of the mothers, that people would say things which they thought could help, but in reality just made things far worse.

    Dealing with death for me is so difficult because I have never had an immediate family member pass away, even when the person with whom I was closest lost her father (and mother) I had no idea how to commiserate properly (of course long after, she said that not directly raising the issue and letting her raise it was probably the best that I could do…

  2. knyckycordner Says:

    You do cover most situations on your blog, I appreciate. Thanks for all the tips and advice. I never even considered this one, because sometimes in situations such as these, we genuinely don’t know how to react & we don’t think about it until it has happened.

    Miracles & blessings to you Sister.

  3. Prayer at Work? The Caribbean Connundrum « Communication Questions Says:

    […] prayer has a place in the workplace. Case in point? In a recent post about how to deal with the loss of a coworker, the need to give colleagues time to Grieve and Breathe was discussed. How does that translate to […]

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