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So, I work in a small company, we mostly do temporary projects for a very big company with many departments.

In one of the departments, an employee died unexpectedly some weeks ago. I did not know the deceased, and only know his colleague from 2-3 technical problem related mails nearly a year ago.

Now I have a meeting with the colleague next week, the topic is about the work of his deceased colleague and how I could finish it. I don't know how the relation between him and his deceased colleague was, but they seemed to work together for a long time.

In this situation, is it common to console the colleague or behave neutral and try to keep the conversation on technical level, or should I not mention the deceased member at all? I am not sure how I should behave at that meeting, primarily it is about the projects the deceased member was working on and how to finish them, but it is difficult to avoid the topic of unexpected death.

Can somebody give me an advise how I should handle this situation? I live and work in Germany, if there is a different cultural behaviour in such cases.

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I don’t think you can go wrong by expressing sympathy for a loss like that:

“I was surprised to hear the news, and I am very sorry for the loss. How is his family doing?”

Then listen for a minute and let his colleague say whatever they want. They may have a lot to say, or very little.

After that, it’s appropriate to get back to business:

“So, where do we go from here?”

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    +1 Keeping it brief, but expressing a sincere concern is always the correct course of action in a professional setting. – Retired Codger Jun 10 '16 at 12:06
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    Agreed. As a fellow worker in Germany, this is what I would also suggest to you. Simply say you're very sorry and that you are shocked to hear. He will point how the conversation will go afterwards. If not, switch back to business. – Sidius Jun 10 '16 at 12:15
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    The only thing I'd add depending on how the coworker is doing is some variation on "Let me know if you need to take a break". A death like this can affect people to varying degrees and while most people will be fine, for some it can hit very close to home. In the rare situation that someone breaks down the best you can do is give them the time to compose themselves. – Lilienthal Jun 10 '16 at 12:53
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    If I've never met the family and didn't know the deceased myself, I wouldn't ask about them, but that's just me. "I'm sorry for your loss." is always appropriate and brief. – Todd Wilcox Jun 10 '16 at 20:37
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    Wouldn't asking "How is his family doing?" force the very first thing they say about their deceased colleague to be explaining that they weren't as close as you assume? In which country would a deceased person's family routinely be in intimate conversation with former colleagues? Sounds very unusual to me. I wouldn't expect any more communication from a deceased colleague's relatives than maybe, maybe a funeral invitation, if that. Certainly not a direct conversation about how they're coping! Surely that's a question for, at most, close friends of the deceased, not colleagues? – user568458 Jun 11 '16 at 16:37
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I’d probably combine the two at once, actually.

“I’m sorry to hear about George. Nobody will be able to replace him, but I’ll do my best to help cover his project for you in a way which would have made him proud. What can I do to help?”

After all, there may be sensitivity to your replacing him, and this acknowledges that, as well as affirming that you will do your best to fill in the gap, and transitioning to an action statement gently.

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    This seems rushed to me - you aren't really giving the employee a chance to say anything, and appear to be rushing to the business side of things, which could potentially give the appearance of "someone who doesn't actually care, but wants people to think that they do care" – Nicholas Ellingson Jun 10 '16 at 15:05
  • Why will nobody be able to replace him? Your job seems to BE to replace him. – Laurence Payne Jun 11 '16 at 11:23
  • @LaurencePayne roles can be replaced, individuals cannot – Gusdor Jun 11 '16 at 13:48
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    @LaurencePayne You're taking the remark very literally! it's a complement to the deceased person, implying they had unique human qualities, nothing more. (that said, personally I'd refrain from such a comment if I'd never actually met the person, if they know you didn't know him it'll look insincere and cloying, better to say something honest like "Unfortunately I never had a chance to meet him but I know he was widely respected", then pause so they have the opportunity to talk about the person if they want to) – user568458 Jun 11 '16 at 16:58
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    “Nobody will be able to replace him" and "which would have made him proud” are not a very good fit for a German context. That amount of pathos would be taken as insincere rather than empathetic. – limdaepl Jun 12 '16 at 7:03
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Maybe culture is different in Germany, but in America, the common approach would be to make a brief expression of sympathy, like say, "Wow, I'm really sorry to hear about George."

If the other person wasn't all that close to George and you didn't particularly know the deceased, they'll thank you for your expression of concern, maybe say a sentence or two, and then start talking about work. Or if there's an awkward silence, you should start talking about work.

If the other person was very close to the deceased, or is particularly emotional, they may go on about it. If they start reminiscing about what a great guy George was and all the good times they had together, you normally just let them go on, make some polite comments, and let them finish. If it goes on very long and/or makes you uncomfortable, then bring the conversation back to work.

If they get really emotional, break down and start crying or something, then it depends on your personality whether you want to console them or try to get them back on work topics. But that would be very rare. I've had co-workers tell me about some very upsetting personal problems, but not often, and not because of the death of a co-worker.

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    If they get really emotional I would not "try to get them back on work topics". Instead, if you don't feel comfortable consoling them, offer to reschedule the meeting for later. e.g. "If you need some time, let's do this later. It's just work...it can wait." – user45590 Jun 10 '16 at 14:25
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    +1 for the first sentence. If you have no idea what the relationship was like, just honestly and sympathetically express your shock at what happened, and let them speak if they want to, how they want to. Let them set the tone of the conversation, then match it. Don't force it in either direction. – user568458 Jun 11 '16 at 16:43
  • @user568458 Yes, well put. – Jay Jun 12 '16 at 5:10
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    Lose the "wow". – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 12 '16 at 15:32

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