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A Death in the Family

0501cover.gifYou get the tragic news that one of your employees has died suddenly. What do you do next?

Tuesday morning showed no signs of the emotional day that lay ahead of Diana Hunt, human resource manager at Panasonic. Instead of going directly to her office, she decided to make a brief stop at another facility. While driving there, she got a call from her office assistant and the news that every HR manager hopes never to hear: "Employee down on the ground."

By the time Hunt arrived at the main building in Cypress, Calif., paramedics were on the scene, administering CPR to a well-liked employee—a woman in her late 40s who, says Hunt, "didn’t appear to have any serious health problems." According to witnesses, the woman had been sitting in her chair one minute, turned around as if to speak to someone, then suddenly fell to the floor. Although the paramedics quickly transported her to the nearest hospital, Hunt later learned that she had succumbed to a heart attack only moments after falling on the ground.

After the death, Hunt faced a multitude of tasks as well as emotions. For one, her office assistant, in addition to several others in the deceased woman’s department, had witnessed the event, including what they felt was the taking of the employee’s last breath.

Emotions were running high, the rumor mill was already in gear and the employee’s family hadn’t been notified. Hunt immediately had to attend to these and other issues.

Like Hunt, many HR professionals everywhere have had or will have to deal with an employee’s sudden death. Are you prepared?

Communicating the News

Hunt’s first priority was to notify the employee’s family; however, at that time, the hospital couldn’t confirm if the employee had died. She decided to contact the employee’s family and let them know that she had been taken to the hospital. "We just told them it appeared serious," she recalls.

The next order of business was to get control of the rumor mill, which had been churning quickly because employees had witnessed the event and knew the seriousness of it. However, she "could not say the employee was deceased." Instead, she released a notice that said, in effect, "We had an employee who was apparently extremely ill and we would update [the employees] as information came in."

Phyllis Stromberg, vice president of human resources at Midway National Bank, in St. Paul, Minn., had a similar experience to Hunt’s when an employee was killed in a car accident during the lunch hour. This presented a different set of circumstances that required a different plan for communicating the news.

First, Stromberg found out about the accident when she received a call from the assistant medical examiner for the county, who requested information on the employee’s next of kin. Upon further questioning, the examiner admitted that the co-worker had, indeed, died. However, he asked Stromberg not to say anything to anyone because the next of kin had not been notified.

Almost simultaneously, the deceased employee’s mother called her daughter’s department in a hysterical state. She had received a phone call from the police telling her that one of her daughters had been involved in a car accident and that she should "go home immediately." Stromberg could sense a mounting panic among her co-workers. Because the employee’s death had been confirmed by the medical examiner, she decided to tell the co-worker’s supervisor and then the rest of the department. Subsequently, she contacted all the bank’s other locations so they, too, would be informed and would not just "hear it on the news."

A good rule of thumb when communicating the news of a death at work, says Naomi Naierman, president and CEO of the American Hospice Foundation in Washington, D.C., is to "leave as few mysteries behind as possible. The more people know, the less they’re going to wonder and get scared."

Initial Mourning Period

It may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances, to let employees take time off without penalty to grieve or to attend the funeral.

The day the employee died, Hunt determined it was best to allow those employees directly affected to go home for the rest of the day with pay.

Although Stromberg’s company is a bank and tends "not to close down for anything," she let employees know that if they wanted to go to the funeral, they could, with no penalties for time off. "It was clear that was something that needed to be done," she says.

Teresa Jeschke, HR director at UNIRISC Inc., a relocation insurance brokerage in Arlington, Va., concurs. Since she’s been with her company, there has been only one death and that person died from complications of the AIDS virus. Jeschke says that although she did not close down the office the day of the funeral, it was "simply because there were a lot of folks who chose not to attend" for various reasons. However, Jeschke, adds, "We certainly extended the invitation to all, and those who did attend were not docked the time."

Whether or not they attend the funeral, many employees may want to mourn the employee by sending flowers or cards to the family or by making contributions to the deceased employee’s favorite charity. Jeschke advises HR to contact family members and ask what they want to be done regarding flowers and cards. If they are to be sent to the funeral home, HR can give out that information. But, if the employee would rather send something to the family directly or if the family requests that, "I would ask them to send it to me so that I could send it to the home, thus keeping the confidentiality intact," she says.

Memorializing the Employee

After the funeral and the initial mourning period, some employees may need to honor the deceased co-worker in a more tangible way, through some sort of memorial service at the job site, creation of a plaque or by setting aside time to reminisce about the employee.

Hunt says that an im-promptu memorial cropped up the next day on the desk of her deceased co-worker, which, sadly, was also the employee’s birthday. "People sent flowers and they decorated her desk. It seemed to help," she says. "It gave [the employees] a feeling that they were doing something."

Jeschke believes that a memorial should be held in a place respecting the employee and who they were. "This might be as reverential as a place of worship or as secular as a bar," she says. "If possible, having employees who want to put it together would be a terrific thing to do, and again, another way to help with the grieving."

Naierman advises HR managers to remember that when an employee dies, colleagues are "going to be very much affected." And by treating the deceased employee’s memory with respect, it will send "sharp signals to the colleagues around them … that they, too, will be treated that way. … It’s an opportunity to raise morale," she says.

One nice way to honor an employee, Naierman notes, is to put together a card, booklet or collage in which co-workers can write their favorite stories or anecdotes about their former co-worker. Another way is to conduct a company fundraiser to raise money to donate to the employee’s favorite charity.

Finding the appropriate memorial may depend on how many people the employee knew in the organization and his status at the company. Jeschke says that the title the employee held should not have anything to do with how the overall situation is handled. "Certain guidelines would be followed for all employees: letting the rest of the company know that they had died, finding out from the family whether flowers or a donation is appropriate and coordinating attendance at the funeral or service."

However, "Doing anything else would depend on who the employee was as a person," she says.

Stromberg agrees, "I’m not sure the level within the organization would make any difference to us. It’s more the individual and what their role was and how it’s affecting other people."

Grief Counseling

HR managers should be prepared to cope with the long-term aftershocks of an employee death. The extent to which you offer grief counseling may depend on the deceased person, the circumstances surrounding his or her death and the surviving individuals affected.

"Counseling could be as extreme as having counseling on site for a period of time or as low key as suggesting that employees seek help using their medical coverage," Jeschke says. "The length of time counseling is offered would depend on the situation of the death and how closely folks were affected. However, like any other life-altering situation for an employee, keeping careful watch regarding their progress is essential. Keeping the doors of communication open is helpful, as well."

For Stromberg, it quickly became apparent that some employees were having problems dealing with their co-worker’s death. So she made arrangements with her company’s employee assistance program (EAP) to bring grief counselors in. The counseling was "opened up to anyone who had known [the deceased employee]," she says.

If your company does not have an EAP program, Naierman suggests contacting a local hospice, which might have free programs for this purpose. Naierman stresses that for some employees, the death of a co-worker may open up some old emotional traumas, or perhaps "unresolved grief of their own." If that is the case, "The person may need a lot more counseling than just a few sessions."

It’s also important for HR to realize that some employees may not bounce back quickly and it may affect their work. Kenneth Doka, a nationally recognized expert on grief and author of the book, Living With Grief: At Work, At School, At Worship (Hospice Foundation of America, 1999), says grief can take employees on an emotional and cognitive roller coaster. Doka explains: "They may find it difficult to concentrate at times [and] difficult to focus, which, depending on the nature of the loss and depending on the person involved, may last a while."

Getting Back to Business

For HR, the duties go beyond personal grief. There are financial issues to address, such as issuing the last paycheck, handling life insurance and retirement benefits, and sending out COBRA notices.

When issuing the last paycheck, Jeschke says if the deceased was married, she would call the spouse about sending out the employee’s final paycheck. If the employee was single, she would call the person designated as the emergency contact. "I [also] would call the life insurance beneficiary that the deceased had chosen in order to get the death certificate and to confirm their address, etc., for the issuance of the check," she says.

Hunt says that in the case of life insurance, she sets up an appointment with the beneficiary to tell them what information she needs to expedite the benefits. "We [also] make sure they understand that the health benefits will continue … if they need them," she says. "[This is so] they don’t feel that everything stops immediately."

COBRA contains provisions that allow family members of a deceased employee to continue health benefits temporarily at either group rates or a rate lower than individual health coverage. "I would handle COBRA by complying with the regulations," Jeschke says, "and by notifying the employee’s dependents, if any, that they could remain with the coverage in place at the time of the employee’s death by completing the appropriate forms and sending in the monthly premiums."

Stromberg handled the employee’s retirement benefits directly with her beneficiary. "I met with her in person, and that is typically something I would try to do with a beneficiary in this type of situation," she adds. "As a matter of fact, I am probably going out to the beneficiary’s house again to handle the paperwork for the year-end profit sharing distribution."

Jeschke’s company does not have a pension plan other than a 401(k). "Each participant designates a beneficiary upon entering the plan. So I would notify our carrier, and they, in turn, would work directly with the beneficiary for the disbursement of the funds."

And then there’s the final act of getting back to business—cleaning out the employee’s desk. This is a sensitive matter, says Naierman. If possible, she recommends getting a family member or friend to do it, although it’s OK if a supervisor or colleague handles the task.

In Stromberg’s case, her deceased employee’s desk was sometimes used by others, so she had to clear out her personal items fairly quickly. But, realizing the sensitivity of this matter, she invited a couple of people who knew the employee well, including one supervisor, to help gather together the personal items.

The one thing HR managers have learned about having an employee die suddenly is to disseminate information about grief in the workplace to employees before a tragedy such as this occurs. "You’re not only providing information that’s very useful but also legitimizing this as a problem employees are bound to have," Naierman says. It also makes the process easier and the recovery time quicker for everyone.

Claire Ginther is a freelance business and psychology writer based in Irvine, Calif.


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