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Coping with Loss at Work: Three Questions Every Leader Should Ask When an Employee Dies

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

When someone dies, we all panic.

There is a discomfort that makes us want to take immediate action.

Leaders, being regular people, are not immune to the discomfort or panic a death causes.

And that is a problem when an employee dies.

An employee's death disrupts work, and no EAP will fix or make it disappear.

But that urge to take action needs to be balanced with the need to take clear, specific action that will benefit you, your team, and your productivity in the near- and far future.

(Actually, it's the same if your friend dies – panicked action is common and NOT helpful!)

Most leaders neglect to ask these crucial questions. Panic shuts them down, then suddenly, the loss doesn't feel so close, and they tend to think everything is fine. But it's not. And it's a costly lie.

Your employees know it's not, and to pretend otherwise is…well, not a good idea.

Here are three of the many questions I recommend leaders ask when an employee dies.

Question #1 How are we grieving at work?

I know. You'll say, "Kim, we send out a death notice as soon as we confirm that death, and then we send out information about the services, we call our EAP, and we make sure everyone knows they have that as a resource."

Look, it's a great start, but WAY more is needed!! Here are three of the many different ways you can help your team or organization grieve at work.

Hold an internal memorial service.

Equip employees with what to say to team members of the deceased employee.

Mark the 30-day passing of the employee with a message to the team, department, division, or organization.

Why do this? Grief doesn't disappear because you don't see anyone expressing it. It goes underground, and like any emotion that is not expressed, underground is terrible!

Question #2 What will the operational impact short- and long-term be on my team?

After a loss, a leader is tempted to put their head down and focus on what needs to be done immediately, without considering the long-term impacts on things like redistributing workload.

Your team needs to know there is a long-term plan, even one in development. Death makes people feel uneasy. Your job is to make your team feel less uneasy. Your turnover rate and productivity depend on it.

Question #3: How can I be empathetic but focus on productivity?

Recently i4CP released a study that showed that when businesses hold leaders accountable for both business and employee outcomes (including employee well-being, including being empathetic), a company 2x its net profit margin and ROI.

When there is a death, well-being means ensuring your team knows how grief can show up for them and their teammates at work. Giving everyone an equal amount of grace and also providing clarity around goals and expectations both short- and long-term. The worst thing a leader can say to an employee is, "Take as much time as you need." is NOT the best thing to say.

Death messes with our heads, hearts, and ability to make rational, reasonable decisions as leaders.

An outside HR grief-related expert helps you navigate this challenging time, helping you build a strong, resilient, empathetic, and productive team. Just because no one has sprawled out on the office floor weeping doesn't mean the grief is not there. Ignoring it will cost you revenue, productivity, and engagement.

Let's have a conversation if an employee has just passed in your organization. Ignoring the death isn't going to work.

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