Dealing With Death in the Workplace

“Call me ASAP.”

It was Monday morning and I had just finished a meeting while getting settled on a trip to St. Louis when I received that text. It was from the head executive of the group I support in Chicago. As I dialed his number, a few things went through my mind. Either somebody resigned or there was an urgent employee relations issue, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to hear. One of our employees had died.

About 15 seconds had passed before I could even say a word. In that time, I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I soon realized, though, that there were a hundred things to do and I had to get started. 

After going through this experience, last week, I learned a lot about a few things I never knew and I learned a lot about myself. In the event you ever have to deal with the death of an employee, I wanted to share a few things I learned in the process.

Communicate To Your Employees 

Crafting all-employee communications is not always the easiest, at least not for me, but it can be especially difficult in these times. Work with your leadership team to determine who should send out the communication. I’d recommend this come from the highest level of leadership in the division or department. Inform employees and offer any resources like the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for them to contact. Also, find a space for your employees to gather, informally, to be there for each other, share stories or memories, and provide more information about benefits available to them.

Help Family of the Deceased

Establish contact with a family member of the deceased to help them with all the information they will need. There will be a lot of information like the final paycheck, beneficiaries for voluntary life insurance and 401k, gathering of personal belongings, that the family will need help with. Most EAPs extend their benefits to family and friends of employees. Make sure they know of that benefit. They will be going through a lot, and anything you can do to make something easier for them will be for the best. If you have a benefits and payroll department, lean on them to help you pull this together. 

Provide On-Site Grief Counseling for Your Employees

Work with your EAP to arrange to have someone come on site to be available for your employees. Most of these services are included in your company’s plan and a phone call to your provider can get this set up. Even if your employees use this service at the time, it is good to have someone present and let your employees know of the invaluable benefit. 

Employees may not have known the employee, but these types of events can trigger emotions of past trauma and it’s important that they know there is help. Your EAP will also provide you with information and literature to pass to your employees on how to deal with situations like this.

Be Sure to Take Care of Yourself

For the first 24 hours, I was in process mode. I found myself hyper-focused on tasks and making sure I had thought of everything. I made a list (which I rarely do), I reached out to everyone in our HR department for help, and I didn’t stop for a break. I had a big presentation that, in hindsight, I should have cancelled. I attended a work function that I should have skipped, as well. I also felt helpless. I was in another office location and I thought I could do more if I was back in my Chicago office. I didn’t want to mess anything up.

When I woke up the next day, I was exhausted. My  body ached, my mouth was dry, and I was in a daze. It was only after speaking with my company’s EAP about some arrangements for our employees that I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself. I barely had anything to eat or drink and I didn’t take any breaks to reflect or take a breath. My EAP contact explained that I was probably in a state of shock. In any traumatic event, the first 24 hours are typically like this. Make sure you take the time to hydrate. Stop to eat something. Go for a walk around the block for some fresh air.

Throughout the past week, I learned about the power of teamwork, friends, and family. It was reinforced that I work for an organization that always goes above and beyond for its employees and is not bound by a policy manual. I realized, in times like these, it is important to reach out to your team and ask for help. It was the collective power of our organization, and not just HR, that got us through, and will continue to get us through the healing process.

As HR professionals, there will probably be a time where we have to deal with a traumatic event. Employees and leaders will look to us in these situations for guidance and leadership. It is important to know that you don’t have to be a hero, but you do have to do your job. SHRM has some good resources and also reach out to your network for advice. HR is not always about trying to be the most disruptive or innovative. Most of the time, it’s about being compassionate and empathetic and doing what’s right, not what others think you should be doing. 

You need to make sure your employees are getting all of the support they need. You need to make sure the family of the deceased is getting everything they need. And, most importantly, you need to take care of yourself. If you aren’t at your best, you won’t be able to provide for those who need you most.

 

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