Dealing with a Client's Death or Tragedy

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jul 12, 2012

Last April, Nancy Saperstone, an HR consultant at Insight Performance in the Boston area was working on site with a client. Her only contact, the COO, had a seizure and never returned to work. The COO later died from a brain tumor, a devastating blow to the company.

Saperstone knew that she needed to be very sensitive to the situation. Fortunately, she was able to forge relationships with other executive team members to help determine the best way to proceed. She noted that it was important for her to be proactive in showcasing what she and the COO had been working on; they had been the only ones focused on the core HR strategy of the company.

Saperstone is not the only HR consultant to ever face a critical situation with a client or client contact. But because these situations are relatively rare, consultants may be at a loss for what to do when they occur. The situation can be difficult to navigate on both a personal and professional level.

Personally, of course, the consultant will be concerned and anxious and wondering how best to reach out to respond appropriately. Professionally, it is understandable to have concerns about the impact from a business perspective—will a new contact person be identified, or will the project be lost?

Considering in advance how to respond can help address these situations appropriately from both the personal and professional levels.

Responding on a Personal Level

On a personal level, dealing with feelings of sadness and determining how to best reach out to respond can be challenging.

Rosandra Esquivel, principal of The HR Firm in the Los Angeles area, works with clients regularly to address these sorts of issues, assisting them through the process from liability, employee relations and workforce perspectives. Recently she worked with a client where a member of the sales force had attempted suicide.

An important point to remember, said Esquivel, is that people impacted by tragedy appreciate your efforts. “The first thing to do is really reach out,’ she said. “During those hard times, unfortunately, is when you find yourself the loneliest because people are not reaching out.” In some cases, that may mean reaching out to a client who has been impacted by illness or accident. In other cases it may mean reaching out to a client’s family members if that client has passed away.

“It all depends on the situation, but what it boils down to is you need to be heart-centered,” said Esquivel. Think about what you would want to have done if it were you on the other side, she advised.

In Saperstone’s situation she knew the COO’s husband from a previous consulting assignment. “I knew them both pretty well so I did reach out to both of them and we kept in touch during her treatment.” Saperstone sent flowers both when the COO initially became ill and for her funeral.

Having some idea in advance of how to respond to tragic situations can ensure that the response is both appropriate and timely. Renee Wood, founder of The Comfort Company Inc., in Geneva, Ill., which helps organizations and individuals respond to the death of clients and employees, said, “Having a standardized policy in place makes it easier to respond in a timely manner in the difficult days following a loss.” Her suggestions include:

*Designate one person to handle the task of acknowledging the loss. In a small HR consultancy, this will likely be the consultant.

*Determine which deaths to recognize. In larger organizations, addressing employee tragedies is often guided by a corporate bereavement policy. HR consultants can create the same type of guidelines. For instance, will you respond to the death or serious illness of any employee within the client organization? Or your direct contact only?

*Find a reliable vendor and select a signature gift. “The companies we work with normally select a gift that is universally appropriate regardless of religious affiliation,” said Wood.

Esquivel added that a key consideration when faced with a tragic situation is remembering that you are dealing with people. That, she said, should be second nature for human resource consultants. “What I always tell my clients is the first thing you always want to do is humanize the process by really reaching out on a personal level,” she said.

Responding on a Professional Level

Of course HR consultants can’t overlook the professional impacts of client tragedy. A practical consideration for HR consultants is the impact the situation may have on their business and future interactions with the client organization. The best way to prepare for professional impacts, said Saperstone, is to build a solid network from the outset.

Having only one point of contact at a client organization can be risky for the relationship if something happens to that key contact, as Saperstone learned. Fortunately, she had already forged relationships with the CFO and CEO, so she had a foundation to build upon. But, she said: “I had to be proactive in developing that relationship further with both of them because we were going through this period of uncertainty.”

Throughout the consulting engagement, noted Saperstone, it’s also critical to make sure that the value of the HR consultant’s contributions is recognized by the organization and not just by a single point of contact. That means, she said, making sure that others in the organization are aware of what’s going on. To the extent they can, she said, consultants should be “visible to the whole employee base.” Consultants, “have to always toot their own horns and make themselves and their projects and work known.”

While HR consultants don’t want to anticipate being faced with a client tragedy, it pays to be prepared if one occurs.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.


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