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4 Questions to Consider When Handling the Death of an Employee

Many of us spend more time with our co-workers than we spend with our families. We see our co-workers five days a week, eat lunch with them, go to happy hours together and share wins and losses. So when a colleague passes away, unexpected or not, there’s a flood of emotions to process.

No one wants to think about an employee passing away. But when it happens, it’s important to think about how your company can help your employees through the difficult time. Having a plan and establishing some guidelines before a death occurs, will make everything much easier for your employees and managers.

The goal should be to answer as many questions as you can beforehand, so you can focus on supporting your employees through their grief and honoring your deceased employee. Here’s some questions to consider and some suggestions that will give you a great start.

1. How will we let employees know of the death?

Notify your people in a timely manner, before a rumor mill gets started. If you have a small company, you may want to gather all of your employees in one place and let them know together. However, in a large workforce, let employees who worked closest with the deceased know about the death first, and in private, before making the news more public.

When you make your announcement to your employees, keep things simple. It is not important to share details; in fact, the “how” of the passing is not appropriate. There’s no reason to share extra information you may be privy to that the employee’s family may not want widely known.

Identify a contact at your organization to work with the family. Let your employees know if they have questions about memorial services or what they can do to help, they should be directed to your company contact as to not overwhelm the family.

2. How can we help employees through their grief?

Don’t assume everyone deals with grief the same way. If possible, bring in a chaplain and/or licensed therapist to help your employees navigate their grief. Be prepared for this to be a multiday process, especially in a large employee base. You may even want to consider scheduling one big group meeting to discuss the grieving process.

Try to give flexibility to your employees by allowing time to visit with their colleagues and grieve. Consider what to share about services. Allowing employees to go to the funeral can help them begin to move on, but you must ask the family their preference about funeral attendance. Inviting your entire workforce to the funeral or memorial service could overwhelm the family or create a burden if the location isn’t large enough. Have this conversation with the family before details of the service are widely communicated.

Wait to clean out the deceased’s desk. Ask the employee’s family if they’d like to pick up the belongings or if they should be mailed. Let your employees know the plans for the deceased’s possessions; too; you don’t want to upset anyone when it’s time to clean out their desk. If your employees are prepared for the change, it won’t seem disrespectful. If possible, gather the items before or after work.

3. What’s the best way to honor the departed?

Commemorating or honoring the deceased somehow at your business can also help your employees process their grief and show the deceased’s family their loved one was a valued member of your team. Dozens of options exist, but only you know what’s right for your team.

Perhaps you could have an employer-sponsored candlelight vigil before or after work hours and ask the family if they’d like to attend. Or schedule an event like lunch, dinner or drinks, where people could share their favorite photos or stories related to the deceased.

You may want to honor the colleague though a scholarship, either in their name or for their children. Or perhaps a physical memorial at the office, such as a plaque or planted tree, may be more appropriate.

Consider sending flowers from the company, or make a donation in his or her name to their favorite charity. Pass around a sympathy card for his or her work colleagues to sign, send a food basket, deliver a useful item or share photos or memories. Your employees could compile a memory book for the family, which can help both sides move on.

4. When is it appropriate to move on?

Eventually, you will need to fill the deceased’s position. Remember that you can never truly replace an employee, nor should you try. If possible, try not to fill the position too quickly. Instead, help your staff cover for the interim. It may benefit them to take ownership of their colleague’s responsibilities … or it may not. Every situation will be different and should be monitored closely.

When it’s time to fill the job, your employees may be highly sensitive to the situation. Consider renaming the position and avoid referring to it as a replacement for the deceased’s name. Relocating the team may help your employees feel like someone new isn’t taking their colleague’s place, especially if the new hire would have sat at the deceased’s desk.

In summary

In making your plan, it’s most important to figure out what’s best for your employees and your company. Get in a room with your peers and talk about what feels appropriate and genuine. Discuss how your company can honor an employee who passes away, and provide a safe place to grieve and move forward. Dealing with the death of a co-worker will never be easy, but having a thoughtful plan in place will make this difficult time a little easier for everyone and will allow employees to see the heart of their company.