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If you have an employee who has an impersonal, but professional relationship with some of your customers (say, an account manager or a sales representative) and the employee passes away unexpectedly, should you inform your customers that they have passed? Or should you just treat the situation as if they have moved on from the company?

My personal preference is not to burden the customer with the knowledge - just keep it to

Sorry, $x is no longer with us. $y has taken over their role, so I will pass you on to them.

(which is the standard script for when an employee quits/fired). Then if asked why, I will then mention that the person has passed away, but not give any more details unless again asked.

Is there another way of handling the situation?

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5 Answers 5

While it may seem like a good approach to sweep the news of your employees passing under the rug, it's important to remember that despite this being business, people are still human. If the employee in question played a major role in solving problems for your clients and has built a relationship with those clients, you'll most likely want to let everyone know in a timely manner.

According to a TechRepublic article, 10 tips for Handling the Death of an Employee, you should announce this news to all employees in an in-person meeting. For clients, this may be tougher and may depend on how many clients your employee worked for. The rationale behind a personal announcement to employees is based on the strong relationship bonds that form between coworkers.

Thus, if your employee was a major accounts representative and, let's say, was working directly with 3 to 5 clients, you'll more than likely want to contact them each individually to let them know the news. But if your employee worked with a hundred clients, and those clients may not likely know the employee, then an official email BCC'ed to all clients would be appropriate. Some clients may not care, some will. But those that knew your employee will more than likely appreciate you taking the time to share the news.

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That's a good article; especially regarding re-recording the voicemail message. I find it exceedingly eery to hear the voice of a deceased person so soon after the event. – Mark Henderson Feb 16 '14 at 23:37
Some places don't do this though. I know of a company that left a user's login in the system. None of us could actually make the move to delete that person's login. It was like we were keeping them alive somehow. Maybe a more middle ground approach would be to reduce all permissions to read-only or reduce access to the absolute bare minimum. – jmort253 Feb 16 '14 at 23:42
@jmort253 – enderland Feb 17 '14 at 0:54

The only reason not to tell the client is because you personally don't want to have a potentially awkward conversation. But the client may want to know because he might want to attend the funeral or send a sympathy card. (I got cards from clients when my beloved died). He might want to know because he will assume there was a turnover of information and be mad when it becomes clear that there was not.

This is especially true if they had some phone discussion just prior to the death that the new person may know nothing about. (It can also be a problem if you do not give the new person access to the emails of the person who died so they don't have any of the history that is stored in the emails, especially the most recent ones.) A client is more likely to give your company the benefit of the doubt as initial issues arise due to the new person not knowing something, if they know that there is no way the old person can be asked. So for business reasons, you will likely maintain better client relations if you tell them.

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Depending on the depth of the relationship, I could imagine passing along the passing in some cases. If the customer often called the employee or it is a customer that has worked with this person for a long time like a decade or more, then it isn't burdening but rather showing that you want this person to know something that they may not know. On the other hand, if the customer is fairly new, then what you've outlined would be fine.

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This should be expressed to the same degree it is expressed within a professional business. For smaller businesses there will likely be an in-person group meeting-- but if the business is large or corporate in nature, with more than one location, chances are it will come out in a company-wide email. The same email should probably go out to all the major clients (bcc, or individually), in a professional manner. "We regret to inform you...".

This is probably also a good opportunity for the business to express confidence in the required transfer of responsibility to another person, or to defer that discussion to a msg to follow.

The one exception I might note is if the business is small or one in which most of the business relationships are in-person or direct on phone. In those cases, it might be wise to pass the message on via the same means; and also offer confidence in the transfer of responsibility.

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This is not significantly different from any other personal event - vacation, left to take a new job, family leave -- and should be handled in the same way. If the customer asks, give a brief, but honest, answer. You don't need to go into details about his plans in the south of france, or where he will be working after moving to north dakota, that he's taking paternity leave, or that he was hit by a drunk driver. Just keep it simple: he's on vacation, he's moved, that he's on leave, or he's deceased.

If the employee is more than a casual acquintance, they will know where to go for more information, if not, they don't need to know.

But you don't want to just say he has been replaced and then for them to find out that he was mauled by a bear. While they may not have a great deal of personal feeling for the former employee, that will just seem cold when and if they find out the actual situation. Doesn't reflect well on the company.

Edit in response to comment. While not trying to hide the event from others is wrong, this isn't about them.

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I think you underestimate how much people care about folks they work with at other companies and overestimate how they can get information. I feel close and connected to many of my clients, but I don't know their home phone numbers or how to reach their parents; the only way I would learn "more information" is through their employer. That's true even of the ones I have as friends on Facebook. – Kate Gregory Feb 17 '14 at 0:30
Interesting link, but how can folks give the "comfort in" if they were never let on to the fact that the person died? I think that's what clients might be a little upset about, that no one gave them the opportunity to send flowers, donate to a memorial, send a sympathy card to a spouse, etc. – jmort253 Feb 17 '14 at 2:57
Dying "is not significantly different" from going on vacation?!? boggle – David Richerby Feb 17 '14 at 8:35
@jmoreno A client with whom the person had worked is not "some random stranger". But, heck, even if some potential new customer phones up and wants to speak with the person, for example, because of a recommendation from somebody else, there's a huge difference between them being on vacation and being dead. In the first case, they'll be back next week: shall I get them to call you then, or would you like to speak with somebody else now? In the second, you'd better not just say that he's unavailable, in case they respond, "Oh, I'll wait." – David Richerby Feb 17 '14 at 9:33
@jmoreno I must've missed the part where I advised giving out details of the funeral or of the deceased's family home. Where did I say that, again? – David Richerby Feb 17 '14 at 23:56

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