Customization Is Key When Employees Are Grieving

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Dec 1, 2008
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A manager’s good intentions might do more harm than good when an employee experiences a loss. But a rigi​d bereavement policy is not the answer. Instead, experts say, employers should focus on respecting an employee’s wishes by meeting his or her specific needs.

This is the lesson iStar Financial, a New York-based real estate investment firm, learned following the death of an employee’s father. An office manager acknowledged the loss by sending baskets of food to the funeral home. But the grieving employee found that particular gesture very insensitive.

That’s when Liz Glover Wilson, currently vice president of corporate events at iStar, stepped in. She suggested that the company craft a policy that would acknowledge such losses in a meaningful way while taking into consideration different cultures, religions and methods of grieving.

“Everybody grieves differently,” Glover Wilson told SHRM Online. “Some grieve out loud and want lots of attention. Some don’t want anyone to know.”

The company now waits for an employee to come forward with the news of the loss of a close family member, including grandparents, stepchildren, partners and aunts and uncles, and then offers to make a donation to the organization of the employee’s choice. The amount of the donation varies based on the relationship, though that detail is invisible to employees.

No other actions—including informing co-workers of the loss—take place without the employee’s permission, including announcements of the loss, cards or flowers. “We make sure it’s what they actually want,” Glover Wilson says. “We vet it through a family member.”

Employers should avoid assumptions, she notes. “Even if someone is of a known culture, you shouldn’t assume you’ll know what they are going to do because the level of observance may be different.”

Death is an area where culture plays out in a powerful way, says Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer for Cook Ross, Inc., a diversity consultancy specializing in cultural competency. The company publishes a resource called CultureVision, an online reference tool designed for health care professionals who need information on beliefs and practices by religion and racial/ethnic group related to health, language, treatment issues and death.

Ross says there are a number of issues, such as what death means in a particular culture and how people deal with loss, that an employer should understand when managing a policy on bereavement leave.

For example, in cultures where family is very important, the definition of family might include aunts and uncles and others who might fall outside of traditional bereavement policy parameters.

The practices associated with death might also vary based on particular religious beliefs and the level of observance, according to Ross. An observant Jewish employee might be required by his or her beliefs to “sit Shiva” for a week, for example, and thus need more time off than an employee who needs only to attend a funeral.

Bereavement policies might seem less important than policies that impact all employees on a regular basis, but careful attention to how they are crafted—and implemented—sends a powerful message about an employer’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, experts say.

“The time when we’re going to be the most sensitive is when we’re feeling most traumatized,” Ross adds, making it even more important for employers to exercise “common compassion.”

Employers should be sure that their bereavement practices take into consideration the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) employees, says Liz Winfeld, author of Straight Talk About Gays (Routledge, 2005) and owner of Common Ground consulting.

Winfeld says organizations that provide domestic partner benefits generally treat gay and straight partners, and their immediate families, the same as they would a spouse for purposes of a bereavement policy. The exception, she says, are GLBT employees who are closeted at work. “If someone is not out they will not come out and ask for it.”

But companies can take steps to make even closeted employees feel included by such a policy. “The first step is having a nondiscrimination policy that speaks to sexual orientation,” Winfeld says, even if a company doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits. “A company can also acknowledge that not everyone comes under the traditional definition of family,” she adds.

“Workplaces also have to ensure they are in compliance with the laws and ordinances in the jurisdiction they are in,” Winfeld notes. Some states and municipalities have workplace inclusivity laws that provide legal protection against sexual orientation discrimination. “It’s not one size fits all.”

A fluid approach to benefits and policies is necessary in a rapidly changing workplace. Winfeld suggests that employment policies indicate a company’s intention to be as accommodating as possible within certain parameters and a willingness to change the parameters if necessary. “It’s a willingness to say ‘this is not written in stone,’” she says. “People and situations do evolve.”

Employers should arm middle management with the knowledge and accountability they need to respond to different circumstances, Winfeld says, so they are ready to address the unexplored frontiers of diversity and inclusion. “Companies don’t get to decide what kind of diversity they want to accommodate,” Winfeld adds. “Diversity is going to come knocking on their door some day.”

Glover Wilson suggests that organizations handle employee losses with the same level of sensitivity as if an employee experienced a miscarriage. “It should be handled very delicately, very confidentially,” she says. “It’s a personal right to disclose this information or not.

“You can really hurt someone if it’s not handled right,” she adds. “Don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction and send flowers.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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