How to Lead When an Employee Dies

By Eve Glicksman December 18, 2020
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How to Lead When an Employee Dies

​"It was the most difficult phone call I ever had to make," said Carma Peters, CEO of Michigan Legacy Credit Union in Wyandotte, Mich. An employee at her company—Sandy, a 31-year-old single mother—had died of COVID-19.

Peters had been in contact with Sandy's parents but had not shared with others that Sandy was in the hospital. Once Sandy's parents verified her death, Peters notified employees. "I never want to have to make that phone call again," she said.

Leading Through Grief

Experts agree that no one is more important than the person at the top in helping staff regroup after a co-worker's death. "The leader must acknowledge the pain, understand it and personalize it," said Joe Spratt, a communications expert at McKinsey & Co. in Chicago who has written about leadership challenges during the pandemic. "The role of leadership is to help people make sense of the unknown or tragic."

The two biggest mistakes Spratt sees employers make after a workplace death are minimizing the event and pivoting away from it too soon. The impact of grief will linger much longer if people don't pause and reflect before trying to move on, he said.

Some leaders fear showing too much emotion, but they must be visible, set the tone and model how to grieve, "even if they don't have the perfect words," advised Dr. Joshua Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. CSTS has produced a guide on grief leadership.

The initial message shouldn't be "Let's get past this," Morganstein said. "You need to be able to be sad with one another. Encourage employees to take a moment, decompress together, share, vent." Genuine expressions from a leader will provide relief and comfort that employees are not on their own, he said.

Meghan Stokes, vice president of clinical services for BHS in Baltimore, said that leaders have to set the stage for front-line managers and acknowledge the significance of the death. "Create a culture where it's OK not to be OK," she said. "[Grieving] should not be seen as a weakness in the workplace. When you ignore and push [grief] aside and try to plow through, it comes out in more unmanageable ways and bigger problems."

Anton Konopliov, CEO of Palma Violets Loans in London, contacted his department heads first after receiving the news that an employee died after contracting COVID-19. He asked them to invite their teams to join a phone call the next day to discuss "sensitive matters regarding a beloved member of [the] team." Informing HR and staff who were close to the employee is also recommended before a public announcement.

"I gave words of praise and comfort to commemorate the late employee and allowed anyone else who wanted to share their eulogy," Konopliov said. "We spent the entire week with less workload, and I gave them an extra day off to help them recover from the news." Konopliov also thanked the employee's family members for their loved one's diligence and provided assistance with expenses and compensation for the number of years the employee was with the company.

Talking It Out

Once the sad news is public, HR and other managers should open the door to conversations about grief, Spratt said. "It's a misconception that people don't want to talk about it. It's up to leaders to take the initiative and ask." Managers can arrange team meetings to reflect on how the pandemic is affecting employees personally, he suggested, noting that they may be hiding their own grief if any of their family and friends died as a result of the virus.

The death of a co-worker can affect morale, mental health and job performance. HR should proactively promote resources that support people, such as a health plan, an app or an employee assistance program, Stokes added. "Individuals don't need a solution. Just show them you care and that they have an outlet to talk."

Michigan Legacy Credit Union's HR team provided access to grief counselors and other resources. "Our philosophy is if employees are worried about anything, they will be less productive," Peters said. "If we can put employees' minds at ease, they will be better able to assist our members/owners."

Some organizations assign a manager or HR member to be a point person for people who worked directly with or were close to the late employee. Grieving is not a one-and-done activity, and conversations need to continue over time, Spratt said.

Grieving Remotely

Grieving is especially difficult when employees must work from home and without the closure of a funeral, Peters and Konopliov both found. Familiar ways of consoling one another, such as attending a wake, sitting shiva and hugging co-workers, are not available right now.

"With so much disruption, creating new rituals is important," Morganstein stressed. They could include a virtual candlelight ceremony or a digital slide show to celebrate someone's life.

Other companies collect donations for a charity to honor the co-worker or make plans to plant a tree on the employer grounds once the office reopens.

"A memorial provides closure before you pivot," Spratt said. For a remote team, he suggested creating an online memory book including favorite stories and photos of the late co-worker. Afterward, he said, transform it into a PDF, or print it for the employee's family. Online services such as GatheringUs allow you to set up a free memorial page or pay a fee to organize a virtual funeral or memorial program.

Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, lowered its flag to half-staff for 42 days to mourn the passing of a beloved faculty member who worked there for 42 years before he died of COVID-19. Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore renamed its intensive care unit to honor the chief of its critical care division, who died of COVID-19 while treating patients.

Employees at Michigan Legacy Credit Union created an education fund for Sandy's son, Lucas. The company also sponsored a fundraising walk for the American Lung Association, as Lucas has asthma. Participants wore T-shirts announcing they were walking for Sandy and Lucas. For the holidays, staff took up a collection to purchase presents for Lucas.

The task for leaders is to help employees make meaning of the painful experience and look hopefully to the future, Morganstein said. "Employees will remember a leader who reached out to them."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

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