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How to Create a Bereavement Policy

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Melissa Cadwallader shares a story about one of her colleagues who worked for a company that didn't give her time off when her aunt passed away. Her aunt was like a mother to her, but her bosses were firm and told her she could only have time off if her biological mother died. 

"Needless to say, she's no longer with that company," said Cadwallader, an HR professional at ZenBusiness in Austin, Texas. "These kinds of hard-line enforcements make employees feel like they're not valued at all."

As HR deals with the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace, it's inevitable that some employees will lose loved ones. If companies truly value their employees, it's critical that HR creates bereavement policies that fulfill employees' needs in this time of crisis and listens to their concerns if a death falls outside of the policy's terms.

"These policies are important because they give people time away from work to deal with the emotions related to loss," Cadwallader said. "However your policy is designed, keep that in mind."

A helpful example is the policy at Your Parking Space, a company based in London company, where an employee's mother fell ill and died within a matter of weeks.

The employee had only been with the company for two months, which meant she would have qualified for a minimal amount of bereavement leave.

"But, of course, we know our employees are our greatest assets, and generosity in instances such as these is vital," said Tiffany Chesson, people and processes manager for Your Parking Space.

The company sent flowers to the employee, and she was given additional paid time off followed by flexible working hours while grieving her mother and making arrangements. A year later, the employee is still with the company and has been promoted to a managerial position.

"Obviously, it's a horrible situation for anyone to go through, but it just goes to show [that] the way you support your employees when they need you most will ultimately benefit everyone involved," Chesson said.

When developing a workplace bereavement policy, craft it in a way that serves employees' needs and is also adaptable on a case-by-case basis.

"All businesses will have the requirement for a bereavement policy at some point," Chesson said. "Therefore, it's important that a policy is drafted and in place before it's needed. For most businesses, the bereavement policy, like most others, should cater to the basics, allowing the flexibility to offer additional pay or time off depending on the specific circumstances."

The Logistics of the Policy

The first aspect to consider is how much time off the company will give impacted employees.

Many companies offer a full workweek, or five days off, when an immediate family member passes and three days off for an extended family member, said Magdalena Zurawska, HR manager in New York City at LiveCareer, a resume services firm. The policy should be consistent across all employee levels, and employees should have the option to return to work early if they choose to.

"People cope in various ways and some want to return as soon as possible to distract themselves," Zurawska said. "This is totally understandable and should be accommodated."

HR also should take into account the distance the employee needs to travel for the funeral, how close he or she is to the relative, and any other special circumstances, so that there is room for negotiation.

"For example, if the person left to attend the funeral on Thursday, let them have the whole next week off versus forcing them to come back next Friday," Zurawska said.

Other aspects that should be considered are:

  • Who is eligible for paid leave? Are part-time, temp and contract employees included?
  • What is the procedure for requesting time off?
  • How many days off will be paid for?
  • How will pay be calculated?
  • What paperwork, if any, will the employee be required to complete?

Whether or Not to Send Gifts

Colleagues and managers may want to send a grieving employee flowers or a card or make a donation to a chosen charity, which HR professionals typically encourage. However, Zurawska recommends that HR not send the employee a gift from the company as a whole, because it can be intrusive and come off as inauthentic.

"Unless it's the founder or someone who's been a major decision-maker for many years [who has died], the company should respect the individual's time and privacy," she said. "Let the employee's closest colleagues chip in as they see fit."

Letting Other Employees Know

Some companies notify the bereaved employee's colleagues that a family member has died. For example, at Growth Rocket, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles, HR will notify the staff after a passing. "We share who in the family died, but that's it," said HR lead Aster Almo. "We think the person who is on leave should be the one to express or say any information about what happened."

Other companies don't let co-workers know about the bereavement, out of respect for an individual's privacy. "If they want nothing communicated, that's fine," Cadwallader said. "[Colleagues] can just be told their teammate is 'out due to a personal reason.' "

A thoughtful bereavement policy will let employees know that you care about them and provide the time and space to heal, so that when they're ready to return to work, they can continue to be productive.

"I think a bad policy is the flipside of that, where employees are forced to take vacation days, have to scramble to get everything done in a day or two, and where work is thought of as more pressing or important than their emotional and mental well-being," Zurawska said. "After all, we work to live and not the other way around. It's important to keep that in mind when creating a bereavement policy."


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