What To Do When Your Employee Dies At Work
HR's role when there is traumatic death on site.
On October 21, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot Halyna Hutchins and wounded Joel Souza. The three of them are all over the news. When tragedies like this happen, support pours out for family members and close friends, but what about those who spent most of their waking hours with Halyna, the crew who witnessed the incident or were on sight when it happened?
Thanks to COVID-19, there is more talk now than ever about mental health, but when it comes to death, I find many HR leaders and organizations still operate under the old paradigm – acknowledge the loss briefly and then move on.
And that is not good for anyone's mental health. In cases where there is traumatic death, that thought process does more damage, which can build distrust in the organization and its leadership.
When there is a traumatic loss, your employees need you to show up, just like a friend would. But just like in "real" life, many HR leaders don't know how to navigate loss, their own or their employees. The question I often get is, "Kim, what should we do now?"
Before I introduce you to my ACT acronym, you must remember one thing.
The steps you take over the next few months will help determine how quickly your employees will recover and be productive.
Moving too quickly or not acknowledging what happened will tank employee engagement, productivity, increase your turnover and cause you, personally, to feel bad. (Kind of like you do when your friend is dealing with loss, and you don't do much to help.)
In other words, gloss over an employee's death at your and your company's peril.
Recently, I developed a simple acronym that helps HR leaders know what to do. A.C.T. Acknowledge what happened. Communicate often. Take care of others.
Acknowledge What Happened
This seems obvious, but I have seen many organizations mess this up. The most significant rule of thumb? Silence is bad. Your employees are watching you and the company to see if the company values their lives. Silence is the best way to prove to an employee they are no more than a cog in a wheel.
As you prepare to talk to teams and communications after a death, a few questions to ask yourself, as an HR leader, and the organization's leaders, are:
What values are showing up right now in the company's reaction?
What values do you want to show up?
Are you feeling paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing? (If so, it's hard to communicate anything that will be helpful.)
If you were a team member who just witnessed another team member's die, what do you think you'd like to hear. (A familiar mistake leaders make is not putting themselves in the shoes of the employees.)
Just remember, your employees are observing you. What you communicate will set the tone for how your organization deals with grief and mental health.
A super simple way to bring empathy into the workplace is to talk about the dead person in a meeting and share how you're struggling to wrap your head around what happened. (This is one of the only times it's crucial, as a leader, to go first so you can model what is ok.) Honoring the person who has died honors your employees. Many employees are thinking, "What if it was me?" Taking the time to honor an employee will help your employees feel less cog-like.
Most organizations know not to stay silent, but then they make the mistake of only communicating once or twice. It's not enough. It's not only the amount of communication that is important but also what is said and its tone.
Employees will want to know about funeral arrangements, how they can support the deceased employee's family, and how the organization will help them cope. They'll want to know who will clean out the desk or pick up the equipment from their home. They'll want to know who will be taking the place of the deceased. In my experience, the more you communicate, the better. Keep in mind as well that the employees are grieving; their brains are not fully engaged. You will need to repeat yourself.
Take care of others
This might sound like a no-brainer, but I have seen companies forget to do this. It's sometimes easier to ignore others' grieving than to practice taking care because there is no one way to take care of others. Also, some leaders feel that taking care of employees will encourage employees to wallow in their grief, which is very far from the truth and is often a reaction to the discomfort with their grief.
I recently worked with a client whose employee had a heartache during a Zoom meeting. Together we developed different ways to take care of their employees and how to communicate it. One of the ideas was to hold an in-person memorial service. They invited the family to attend and encouraged all employees to attend. They invited team members to share a funny memory of this person. Employees could speak during the service or write or record a memory to be shared during the service.
The client later reached out to share her surprise at how many employees thanked her for putting the service together! The manager of the team the employee was on reported that his team seemed to be working together better a week later. The lesson? There are probably many, but the main one is your employees need to grieve the loss of a fellow employee.
But a memorial service is not enough. You will still have to deal with grieving employees, and that is often left to the managers. It's not their job to take care of grieving employees. HR's job is to provide tools and information to support the manager as the team moves through grief.
A quick work about grief counselors:
Bringing grief counselors on site can backfire. If you plan to only bring them in for a few days and do nothing else, the message you're sending is to the employees is very clear. We will not honor anyone past a few days, and your grief / mental health doesn't matter. If providing grief counselors is part of a bigger plan to support employees, then it can be instrumental in helping your employees grieve.
Sudden death at work presents unanticipated challenges. It's not strategic HR, and it's uncomfortable because most of the time, we don't know how to handle grief outside of work either. But managing the fallout from sudden death at your organization is part of our job as HR leaders. How you manage trauma at work WILL and DOES affect work, your employees, and you!
However you are managing your employees' mental health during sudden death situations, do it thoughtfully.