223

This morning, a bunch of news flashed around in our regional TV about the death of a young male, just out of his teens, killed in front of his house while going home from college last night.

That kid was one of our dearest employees.

Not in the sense of being our top performer, but he was like those people that are a shard of happiness in the workplace. Always happy, always cheerful, always upbeat and trying to make everyone around him happier.

Most people came to work today in tears. A few skipped work to stay home. We started the day today with a brief meeting on the parking lot, where we held hands and did a little faith-agnostic prayer.

We tried to have a relatively normal day today, but it was almost impossible. Seeing his desk without him around to crack a silly joke was really hard for a lot of people. After lunch, we gathered everyone together once more and gave them the rest of the day off, keeping only the bare-bone operational team (managers and one or two employees by team) on site.

The whole experience was extremely difficult to deal with, and triggered a few discussions between the management team. We never had to deal with a situation like this one before, and the feeling that we must have done something more keeps nagging us to no end.

How do you deal with the death of an employee, regarding your team? How do you make people feel a little better after something sad like this happens?


Thank you all for all the support you guys gave us. That means a lot. This community keeps showing how awesome it is every single day.

  • 91
    Having lost a dear friend a few years back and gone through that with all of our mutual friends, one thing I noticed was that everyone has their own grieving process. Perhaps not much of an answer (hence a comment), but hopefully a helpful observation when considering how each employee may best be helped. A Stack Exchange comment seems a very poor place to attempt to express sympathy, but you and your staff have my sympathies. – Todd Wilcox Mar 16 '17 at 1:31
  • 7
    One brief comment is that nothing important is achieved overnight except for an epic fail. There is nothing that you or your colleagues can (or should) be able to do to get over this in a week. On your account (and, I imagine, any of a number of your colleagues' accounts), the kid was a member of the community, was justifiably respected, and the kind of person who likes to make others' lives happier. And without warning known to you, he was blasted away. That's going to hurt. It should hurt. I do not know much about grief counseling, but there is such a thing as taking time to grieve. – Christos Hayward Mar 16 '17 at 21:02
  • 6
    My sincere condolences :( – Jan Nash Mar 17 '17 at 11:00
  • 4
    I'm so sorry for your loss, and think you did a good job of handling an impossible situation. Don't feel bad, there's no perfect way to handle something so awful. – Mel Reams Mar 18 '17 at 6:52

12 Answers 12

180

At my previous company, the well-liked co-founder and CEO died suddenly on a Sunday. On Monday morning there was a company-wide meeting to share the news (it wasn't already in the news like yours was), and anybody who wanted to go home did, no questions asked. On Tuesday the company was closed for the funeral; many but not all employees attended (and it was ok if people didn't). The company rented a room at a local restaurant after the funeral so we could gather without invading the family's space, and they picked up the tab.

The company also arranged for the services of a professional grief counselor (yes, that's a thing). Anybody who wanted this counseling could get it for free and in a confidential way (i.e. they didn't set this person up in a central conference room where everybody could see who was going in). I didn't participate in that so I don't know all the details.

Over time, people adjusted. I think being able to attend the funeral and that gathering afterward was important, and obviously the funeral attendance had to be ok with his family. (They checked; we didn't just invade.)

The other thing that happened was a year later, on the anniversary, when some employees set up a little memorial area outside the conference room that was named after him. And there was gathering and sharing of stories and memories, and a general understanding that people were free to participate if they wanted to (managers were not hovering over people bugging them to get back to work and stuff).

It's been almost 12 years now and a lot of us still miss him, but time does have a way of helping. The company went on and the team went on. Allow time for grieving and memories, provide support if you can, and don't push people toward or away from a certain level of participation. People grieve in their own ways; one size won't fit all.

  • 4
    You related many of the ideas in my answer, but more clearly and concisely. Thank you for putting up a great answer. – Todd Wilcox Mar 16 '17 at 1:53
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox oh, it looks like we were answering at the same time! Thanks for contributing yours too. – Monica Cellio Mar 16 '17 at 1:54
  • 24
    +1 For offering a professional grief counselor. I think this is something that a lot of companies offer in situations like this. – David K Mar 16 '17 at 11:49
  • While naming a conference room after the deceased may not be appropriate in OP's case (but perhaps it is...) something like that might surely be considered. – Andrew Leach Mar 17 '17 at 10:30
162

One way to deal with it as a team is to pass the hat around and collect some money, then buy a bunch of flowers or something and either send a couple of representatives to the family to offer condolences, or go en masse.

This gives everyone involved a stake in it and a feeling that they have done something and a bit of closure. In my country we'd actually give the $$ and a card, rather than flowers.

It has the added benefit of making the family feel better as well knowing their loved one is missed and respected at his workplace. If the boss or manager can go, that's the best in terms of showing respect.

You don't hang around crying, you just show up, hand over the envelope, a rep makes a short speech about how great the chap was, then you get out and leave the family to their grief.

  • 7
    This is a solid approach as well. – Mister Positive Mar 15 '17 at 22:09
  • 122
    "Going en masse" may be disruptive, if you don't know what the family plans are. But as a personal anecdote, my father was killed in a road accident travelling home from work, which was reported in the local news. At the funeral, when the coffin was being carried from the church to the graveside an unannounced group of about 30 of his work colleagues (dressed in their normal working gear - hard hats, boots, overalls, etc) had formed a guard of honour along the pathway. By the time the interment was over, they had disappeared. We never found out who they were, but the message was obvious. – alephzero Mar 16 '17 at 1:19
  • 88
    @alephzero a brief show of respect is not disruptive, it's an honour, I think it was terrific of your fathers coworkers to do that. The keyword is 'brief' – Kilisi Mar 16 '17 at 3:00
  • 24
    Note that "going en masse" (or refraining from it) depends on the culture. For example in my country it's socially expected to show up to a funeral of a colleague. – sampathsris Mar 16 '17 at 7:05
  • 21
    Going en masse can be a beautiful ceremonial thing, though doing it unannounced could be potentially problematic in some cases. It'd seem worthwhile to ask a family member for permission, even if just as a sign of respect. They may even have advice on when/how to proceed. – Nat Mar 16 '17 at 11:14
69

Other people have already dealt with the grief related aspects of a deceased employee. I want to talk about the business related aspects.

  • Notify your insurance provider (if you have one) that one of your employees has died. They will pay out life insurance to the next of kin, if applicable.
  • Get someone trusted to go through their work computer and make an inventory of what is in there. If there happens to be anything of personal nature in there, make a copy of those files and deliver them to the next of kin. Anything business related that needs retention should be retained.
  • Get someone trusted to go through their locker (if applicable) and desk drawers. As with their computer, hand personal belongings to the next of kin and retain anything worth retaining for the business.
  • Get someone trusted to go through their work email. Any email conversations that are still ongoing should be handed over to someone who is familiar with the matter, who should then inform the person on the other side about what has happened and that they'll take over.
  • While going through their email, check if there are any websites they have registered an account with using their work email address. for each account, verify if the account is relevant to the business.
    • if the account is relevant to the business (and somehow isn't registered to a company-owned email address), change the registered email address (if possible) and password so another employee can access it.
    • If the account is not relevant to the business, but is also a personal account of the employee (like social media or forums), discuss with the family if they want to take over the account so they can turn it into a memorial page or similar.
    • If the account is not relevant for the business any longer and isn't a personal account of the employee (something like an account for a sandwich bar the employee orders their lunch at), change all the fields to random nonsense and delete the account. The reason you want to change it to nonsense is because many websites don't ACTUALLY delete accounts for accounting reasons, so the data still remains.
  • Verify all places where their user account on your systems still has access. Remove it where possible, replace with their replacement where needed.
  • Once you have ensured that there are no systems or services that require their account, deactivate it and wipe their work computer so you can give it to their replacement.
  • In the weeks after the above has been dealt with, determine the business processes the deceased employee is involved in. This can be any number of processes, ranging from something as minor as ordering lunch for the weekly meeting, to more involved actions like adapting procedures to new legislation.
    • Reassign these processes among the employees who have the competencies to handle these assignments.
    • Start with those processes which are business-critical (like keeping inventory stocked in retail). In the case of these uniquely qualified processes, it's a good idea to assign both a main and a backup employee to handle these, and make sure that both of them are capable of doing it.
    • After this, move to the processes which only the deceased did (or could). Again, assign both a main and a backup employee and ensure they're both capable.
  • 13
    "If the account is not relevant [to the business], change all saved data on there to random nonsense and delete the account." Be careful with this. It might be worth involving the family, and perhaps change the login credentials to something chosen by the family. Some sites, such as Facebook, allow for memorial accounts or similar; changing all the saved data to nonsense and deleting the account precludes this possibility. This isn't the time to be judgemental about whether the possible use of a company computer for some amount of private recreation was appropriate. – a CVn Mar 17 '17 at 7:42
  • 6
    @MichaelKjörling I was talking about accounts that are registered to the employee's work email address. I don't think there are many people who use their work email address to register a social media account. I'll clarify this. – Nzall Mar 17 '17 at 10:12
  • 2
    When you clear out his desk and computer files, think of the family's feelings. If you discover any porn, love letters from somebody not his spouse, etc., destroy them and keep quiet about it. – Flynn Mar 20 '17 at 17:48
  • To add to this, determine which business processes this person was part of and establish a time frame to pass off duties to others. Prioritize tasks that were only done by this employee but also look at shared tasks to ensure that there is adequate coverage for workload. If your organization is very compartmentalized this may be done by the deceased's manager, if it's an organization where tasks are spread freely across departments multiple members of the management team will need to be involved. – Myles Jul 14 '17 at 14:14
  • To add to that, this would be in the weeks afterward rather than days afterward time frame unless this person held a critical role in the organization. – Myles Jul 14 '17 at 14:17
31

From my experience, sometimes it is best to talk about it, provide a way for employees to express their feelings, and respect those that need time, but at the same time press on with work and get projects done. Perhaps management could bring in a professional to provide counselling.

Very sorry for your loss.

  • 12
    @Smit Grief councelling. You spend as much or more time with those you work with then those in you personal life. For some work IS thier life. – Mister Positive Mar 15 '17 at 22:08
  • 1
    it's a fairly common thing when there's a death at workplace or summer camp or something, to have the company bring in a counselor for at least a couple hours and people can sign up for slots to talk to them. – max pleaner Mar 16 '17 at 5:53
23

My only "knowledge" of this comes from my personal losses, not from any professional training, but I have some thoughts based on my experiences that I hope will be helpful.

You might consider looking in the budget for money to hire a professional or team of professionals who have experience helping with workplace tragedies. You'll want to maintain the utmost sensitivity and also foster healing. At some point life must go on, and it is a hard question to decide how soon that should be.

As I mentioned in my comment, people grieve differently. Anything that is done as a company as part of the grieving process is probably best made clearly optional. Those who feel that they would be helped by participating in something can, while those who need to be alone or with those who aren't coworkers won't feel like they will be looked down on for not participating.

Funerals and services are quite painful but also cathartic and important for healing (at least for most people). You might reach out to the family and ask if they are willing and able to allow the deceased's coworkers to attend a service, if one is being held. Alternatively, or in addition, a service of sorts at the office may be helpful. Giving people a chance to talk about the deceased and to talk to each other and be social can be very helpful. Allowing people to be present without any pressure to speak or socialize is also important. People bond over food, and food can be comforting. A day of no work, catered lunch, discussion, remembrance, a slideshow of happy memories of the deceased - optional activities like these can both allow people some space to grieve while also marking out a time where it's appropriate to be fully human and emotional at the office.

After a company service or attending the family service, gentle encouragement (perhaps beginning the following business day or the next Monday) to look back at work will hopefully feel appropriate. Allowing people time off if they need it (within reason) will be appreciated. I know when my close friend died, I walked into my boss's office and calmly told her what had happened but I said I wanted to focus on work. Then I burst into tears and she insisted I go home, for which I was very grateful later on.

Stephen Covey wrote that "relationships are more important than results". Some may dispute that assertion, but I believe he really has something there. For you, you have both a challenge and an opportunity to put that idea to the test. I believe and hope that if you can take some time out to cater to the relationships between you and your employees (and their relationships with each other), healing will be fostered and a deeper relationship between you all and with the workplace itself may result.

Again, my deepest sympathies and best wishes.

  • 4
    Well-said. Thank you for sharing your experiences. – Monica Cellio Mar 16 '17 at 1:57
10

There's one factor which is necessary to heal every hurt, and that is...

Time.

Here are a few things I have learned when going through difficult emotional times:

  • Don't expect things to be easy. It's easy to focus on the future when the tears will be wiped away and you'll be happy once again. That's not bad, but don't focus just on that. Recognize the time as difficult; recognize the struggle in your own heart.
  • Let your employees know that you're finding it as hard as they are. Don't hide your feelings. Frequently going through a difficult experience together can actually pull you closer to each other. I know that has been the case for me.
  • Don't push business. Just let the adjustment take place gradually. Community building (whether it be family, workplace, or organizational) is more important long-term than the organization itself or what the stated objective of the organization is.

...and I add one that I personally have found very, very helpful:

  • If you and a significant number of your employees hold to some form of Christianity, get the focus on the eternal reunion with Christ, not on the temporary loss. When you're talking with the employees, speak about eternity. Don't be overly nervous about talking about this even if you would normally be; frequently people are more willing (and find it more helpful!) to discuss this during a time of pain.*

Very sorry for your loss: wish you the best during this difficult season.

* I do not want to force this on anyone: I just included it in case it helps for someone who holds similar beliefs. :)

  • 11
    It might be that any overt religious practice in the office could make an employee who does not practice that religion feel like a hostile work environment is being created. I'd want to at least run that by legal and HR first. – Todd Wilcox Mar 16 '17 at 1:27
  • 6
    Unless the "significant number" is "100% of every single person totally guaranteed" that suggestion is only going to cause problems. This applies to any religion. – user53718 Mar 16 '17 at 4:50
  • 12
    -1 for the last bullet point. I'm sorry, but bringing religious beliefs into all this (especially if it's one single religion) is not OK in my opinion. Nowadays, a typical workplace can have people of many religions or even atheists. Doing or saying something that is exclusive to Christianity is very exclusionary, so I'd avoid it altogether. – Radu Murzea Mar 16 '17 at 8:59
  • 3
    @pwdst, ^ - I shared the last bullet point because I have almost always worked for small companies where I already know how people will respond - and in my particular situations, even agnostics have appreciated a word about the afterlife spoken in love. That being said, I totally understand the negative comments; they are logical. However, I leave the post as it is, with the comments as a warning to future readers to think twice before just blasting ahead. :) – anonymous2 Mar 16 '17 at 13:04
  • 6
    In addition to the signifanct number of employees, make sure that the deceased themselves were also of that religion, otherwise religious comments like that are pretty much an insult to who they were. – Erik Mar 16 '17 at 15:04
4

People deal with death differently, at different times in their lives. When I was going through an identity crisis at 25, a cousin of mine died. This cousin I had only met twice: once shortly after he was born (which i don't remember) and then again a week before he died at 15. He had bone cancer. Despite knowing for some time that he was almost certainly going to die, he was an incredibly positive and funny guy. A real living antithesis to my depression and feelings of insignificance at the time. For example, he told me quite candidly that his biggest regret was that he never had a girlfriend. When i told him it's not too late, he joked that there's no chance, because he looked like his Dad - bald and always sitting in a chair. Can you believe it. That one still makes me laugh to this day.

A few weeks later I learned he had died, and the whole experience really shook me to the core. I would say it's when I, for the first time ever really, appreciated that life is inherently unfair (and it's our job as humans to make the world a fairer place). It was just the right point in my life to really penetrate deeply. I didn't take a day off work, but I also didn't sleep for 3 days straight. When I did finally sleep it was due to exhaustion. It went on like that for about 2 weeks. But at the end of those two weeks, I was done. I didn't have any sadness left in me. A day or two after that, i was back to normal. In total, I probably spent 10x longer being deeply sad about my cousin's death than I spent in the presence of my cousin, and it was all because of what he represented more than who he was to me.

I say all this because I can imagine the situation could be similar for those at your place of work. You might find some people unusually upset. You might find some people inappropriately making light of the situation. You might also find that the people it effected the most have no obvious external signs at all, like I think I did. And you might find some people uncontrollably sad for a time, but a month later it's like nothing ever happened.... life goes on.

I think it's important to view grief as a ride like that - a real rollercoaster, and you never know how someone is going to react. But it does have a definitive end. It will not feel this way forever. That sort of outlook allows for exceptions to be made, but also to appreciate that soon things will likely be back to normal and nothing too irreversible should be done. That's really all anyone can ask from their boss in a time like this.

3

Lost my boyfriend last year. I had to visit his office to take of his affairs. That was the first time I met people he often mentioned fondly. He was so respected in his work. I saw his dearest work friends and superiors of the company mourning, shocked and offering their condolences. It felt unreal.

Been a year and more now, this morning someone he worked with sent an email to his id (that I am still logged into for sentimental reasons) and he had written that he was upset over my boyfriend's demise, respected the work they together did and hoped someday they will meet again.

No matter your closeness with your coworker, allow yourself to feel sad and take a reasonable time to do so. Somedays are hard but grief is a wave and you learn to ride its highs and lows. Even after a lot of time has a elapsed, you will still feel sad. Such is life, control is an illusion. It's OK to remember them, mourn that such a thing has happened and to find strength in yourself to carry on.

2

I cannot answer this from the perspective of the death of an employee, but a schoolmate.

We lost a schoolmate to cancer, she was also the daughter of two teachers at the school and had fought for over a year, including the teachers and students organizing screenings to find a stem cell donor for her. Although not all of us knew her closely, it was a loss, loss of a friend, a student, an acquaintance and a fight.

The day after she died we shortly met up in the schoolyard, to do something similar to you, a faith-agnostic meditation-like goodbye. After that, we had two more hours in the classes, with class teachers where every class agreed on something, mine just went for a very extended walk, where people who wanted to stay silent did so and some other talked a little. After that we were sent home (there was a rule about how long we had to be at school minimally, so that could not happen earlier and would have meant for some of us to end up home alone).

The next day, we set up a little remembrance shrine for her. Not in a place that everyone would constantly see, actually. In a corner of the schoolyard where you could find some quiet and you had to purposely go there. This avoided having a constant reminder in plain sight that just would have made it hard for everyone to focus on getting back to life.

I remember for her own class there was also an offer of counseling by two parents that were qualified to do so. No "official" representatives of the school went to the burial because it was very small and only for close family and I think two or three very close friends of her.

After some weeks (yes, weeks) life slowly went back to normal. Maybe because in a way we were prepared. But also because it just had to.

Most of this would also apply to a company and teams instead of a school and classes I guess. Grief can be surprisingly similar between teenagers and adults.

0

Sorry for the loss.

As a organisation, we do not know instances than can occur probably death of an employee But what is important is continue the business.

If you got a day, that you can give them off. This will help get over the stress and hard-feeling.

You can be nice, but also have run the business and satisfy your customers and clients.

You could gather them all, and do a farewell speech for the person, and give them a day off. This will help them have a rest-day and also get over with the emotions.

-2

Analogy: a story of death and guilty feelings

There was one announcement-only email list posting after a boy at school collapsed on the baseball field. He had no breathing and no pulse, and the coaches did CPR until the ambulance came but it wasn't enough. The boy ended dead, and the coaches felt like they had shown a terrible failing of love.

There were some things I really wished to tell them, but I couldn't through lack of contact details.

First of all, CPR is premature and inappropriate until a patient is clinically and legally dead. The boy did not die on the ambulance or in the ER; he died on the baseball field before the coaches began CPR. The marketing slogan "CPR saves lives" fundamentally misportrays details; even at its best, CPR is 35% as effective as a beating heart, and all it does is hold onto a very slender chance that the ER can get a patient back ("résuscitation" in French means "resurrection [from the dead]"). It's worth doing but the odds are slender. Which leads me into my second point:

Second, even under optimal conditions the percentage of patients who are successfully brought back to life after a first responder does CPR is less than 10%. No matter how well you do, it is more than 90% likely that it won't do any good. Now it's worth doing; I don't want to discourage people from doing CPR. But please don't expect that if you care enough and do a good enough job you'll get the person back. 90+% of the time, it doesn't matter how much you care or how well you execute; it won't help.

Third, perfect CPR doesn't happen. This point was specifically made in an Emergency Medical Technician class I took. Something always goes wrong, and that's normal. The teacher's beating the drum of "Perfect CPR doesn't happen" was not teaching the general public who may perform CPR off of training from years back. The teacher was directly telling students who would become EMT's and usually paramedics, who would be thoroughly trained in CPR, with ongoing professional development and probably perform CPR on some kind of regular basis, that perfect CPR doesn't happen; it's a chimera and even if it's your job to do CPR, you're going to make mistakes again and again - and we should make our peace with it instead of expecting perfection. (And I am almost positive the coaches screwed up in some detail small or large, with timing off or something like that.)

Fourth, I am positive the coaches would have given their lives for that boy if they saw any way to do so, and would have done so in a heartbeat. They felt guilty that the boy's death showed somehow that they didn't love him enough, because if they had loved him enough he would have come out of the ER alive. This may or may not be rational, but these kinds of sentiments somehow seem to hover in a situation like theirs—or yours.

What you can take away - and what you can all do

The OP feels that management should have done something they didn't do. Well, um, maybe. I make enough clumsy mistakes when I am not under any particular stress, and I'm sure that management did something wrong, or didn't do something helpful that you could have done. You could spend the rest of your life Monday morning quarterbacking on that one. However, you did the best you could think of in a situation where you and others were stunned and reeling. You were acting in grief, and you should have done so.

About next steps from now, other people have mentioned a grief counselor. I might suggest you consider collaborating with the employee's family and set to work on some community service project or undertaking where all those connected with him (and not just the many people at work) could work together to undertake a community service project in his honor. And go ahead, putting grieving connections in a place to erect a monument of service.

And one last thought. Some people have said that people who are grieving do very well with a puppy or other pet. Sometimes even just going to a good pet shelter and spending some of the time with the animals there can be good—and not just because you might take a rescue pet home. As a rule, most pet shelters could use more time with strangers coming in and giving a bit of attention to what are often very sweet animals.

Just a few thoughts.

  • 1
    Not sure what the CPR had to do with the OP. And in french we usually use the term "réanimation (cardiovasculaire)", which means re-animation. When the body "dies" as you put it, clinical death has not yet taken place; the brain still has activity: what is needed is to fan that flame of life into action. – anonymous2 Mar 17 '17 at 15:28
-3

While you do have the nagging feeling to do something (which is a perfectly normal reaction), you actually don't have to. Well, there the organizational matters which need to be taken care of when someone leaves a team, but apart from that, there's still the fact you should still be aware of the separation of work-life and private life.

I am aware that this sounds really hash, and you probably think that I am a cruel idiot. But the real deal is that you might be in danger to get dragged down by a false feeling of guilt because you "didn't do enough". Don't get down this path. Your job is to care for your colleagues at work. Concentrate on them. If it was your team culture to have regular or irregular team events, it might be appropriate to embrace the funeral as a team event (if this is okay for the close family).

But don't get into "brainless activity" because of "nagging feelings" or some sort of ill guilt.

And sorry for being so cold, curl, harsh. Really.

  • 3
    I don't see how this answer adds value. – Mister Positive Mar 16 '17 at 11:59
  • 3
    "Not dealing with it" as a course of action for management is very likely to have the "problem" backfire at you. Because your employees do have to deal with their feelings and the change. – skymningen Mar 16 '17 at 12:10
  • 4
    You probably missed "That kid was one of our dearest employees." and the paragraph that follows that sentence. To them this IS part of their work life. He was a dear coworker seemingly loved by his coworkers and not some relative of an employee that only a few may have met. – MetalMikester Mar 16 '17 at 12:38

protected by Masked Man Mar 17 '17 at 10:29

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.