Death is an incredibly tough subject to discuss, and one we are confronted with daily these days, but it’s also been an issue that managers and leaders have dealt with for a long time. How should you act when an employee loses a loved one? What should you say? How do you respond without coming across as invasive?
When one of your employees suffers the loss of a loved one, you need to be prepared—emotionally and logistically—to respond. It’s more than good manners: It’s good management. Showing employees that you care builds their loyalty and engagement, and that makes them better employees in the long term. And how you treat grief-stricken employees won’t go unnoticed by their teammates. It can be one of those moments that solidifies you as a strong, but compassionate and caring, leader.
How leaders respond during these challenging times will shape how employees see them long after the recovery. Those who choose to stand up, address the hard, heartbreaking stuff, and show kindness will gain and keep employees’ respect. Here is some advice on how to respond to the circumstances:
- Know your organization’s bereavement leave policy. Since it’s not something you reference regularly, you might not recall the details. Don’t put yourself in a situation in which you have to make a distraught employee wait while you look up “the rules.” Know them ahead of time, and be ready to tell the employee exactly how much time off is covered. Also, be flexible when you can, enabling employees to work from home or alter their hours as needed.
- Alert your team. As soon as possible, notify your team of their colleague’s loss, if you have permission to do so. That ensures that no one will unintentionally say something insensitive, and it gives them an opportunity to plan their responses, such as sending cards or preparing meals for the family. It also gives you an opportunity to plan how to cover the workload. Make sure you share the plans with employees so they can focus on more important matters than who is going to answer their phones, respond to emails or cover their assignments.
- Show your support and sympathy. Work with your team to think about ways to support this particular employee. That last part is really important, because you don’t want to make the employee feel uncomfortable. Would a meal train be appreciated? Or would a collection of cash donations to help with financial burdens be more appropriate? Should you send flowers or make a donation to a charity? Brainstorm ways to show the employee that you are all thinking of him or her by offering something that he or she will really appreciate.
- Attend the services. If it is being held locally and is not an explicitly private ceremony, go to the visitation or funeral, if you can. It does not matter that you never met the deceased; you go to support your employee. Work to accommodate your employees who are close to the person and wish to attend too.
- Check in on your employee. When your employee returns to work, acknowledge the loss again in person. You can say something as simple as “Again, I want to express my condolences. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” Remember that holidays and anniversaries of the death might be especially difficult for your employee, so try to check in at those times as well.
- Be understanding, but expect productivity. When employees come back to work, they do have to work, and they still have to meet performance requirements. While you can expect some short-term slips, you can’t let it go on forever. Offer plenty of support, allow them to ease back into things if necessary, but don’t condone poor behavior or bad performance. Address the behavior as you would with anyone else who is not meeting goals. The employee may need to take a leave of absence or speak to HR about options if he or she is struggling to resume work.