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Helping Employees Cope with Unexpected Death

When an employee dies unexpectedly, HR professionals must act to help co-workers navigate their emotions—and recover quickly.

At 5 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2010, Robert Sprague awoke to a knock on the door. On the other side was the wife of his longtime friend Sam Del Brocco, informing him that his charismatic Alexandria, Va., business partner had been found murdered in his Pompano Beach, Fla., vacation home the previous night.

Sprague felt a wave of emotions—shock, disbelief and grief—and an immediate sense of responsibility for his employees. He and Del Brocco co-founded PCI Communications Inc. in 1985 to handle crisis communications, and it occurred to Sprague in that moment that he would need to draw on that expertise to help his employees navigate the next difficult steps.

When tragedies such as Del Brocco's death make headlines, support pours out for family members and close friends dealing with the sudden loss. Sometimes overlooked are the people who spent most of their waking hours with the deceased—co-workers.

The unexpected death of a co-worker can trigger a profound reaction. "Our co-workers are very much like an extended family," explains Helene King, a certified employee assistance professional and owner of COPE Inc. in Washington, D.C., which provides workplace assistance services. "It's not surprising that a co-worker's death can sometimes be difficult to deal with, particularly if you were close to that person or if the death was sudden and tragic."

The immediate steps taken by HR and corporate leaders can determine whether employees quickly recover from the tragedy and resume productivity or whether they become mired in grief and disengaged at work.

Breaking the News

It was a Monday morning, and Sprague knew he had to get to the office quickly to inform employees in person. "I knew employees would be shocked and grief-stricken," Sprague recalls, "but I also recognized that in times of crisis, people quickly turn to wondering how it's going to affect them personally. These people depend on the company for their livelihood and their overall satisfaction and fulfillment, and I wanted to reassure them that they would still have that."

Sprague addressed on-site employees as a group and held a conference call with employees working remotely. "I wanted to be as transparent as possible with all the details I had, which wasn't much at that point—and still isn't," Sprague says, as Del Brocco's murder remains unsolved. "I told them I planned to keep the company going. I told them I had every confidence in the team to provide the best work for our clients and that Sam would want us to keep going."

PCI is a small firm of fewer than 50 employees, so the decision to deliver the news to the entire on-site staff at once made sense. But for larger companies, consider who you tell and how, says Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Network, a crisis management company based in Grandville, Mich. "Think about circles of impact," he explains. "A member of a closely knit team should be treated differently than people who barely knew or didn't know the deceased. Plan out the circles of impact, and group those who are affected similarly. You should communicate and provide resources differently for each group."

The immediate steps taken by HR leaders can determine whether employees quickly recover from the tragedy and resume productivity.

One circle includes clients and vendors. With external people "who had frequent contact with the employee and had developed a close relationship, it is preferable to make a personal phone call to each one," advises Dawn Haag-Hatterer, SPHR, president and chief executive officer of Consulting Authority, a risk mitigation company based in Frederick, Md.

ACT: Acknowledge, Communicate, Transition

Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Network, advocates a crisis communication technique he calls ACT:

Acknowledge the tragedy and articulate the immediate impact. "Employees will be watching to see if the company values them as human beings or as cogs in a revenue-producing wheel," VandePol says. "Under the impact of traumatic stress, people regress back to the self and will wonder, 'What if it were me?' If the deceased is minimized, employees will feel minimized. If the deceased is honored, they feel more honored."

Communicate pertinent information with competence and compassion. "Communicating in this fashion replaces some of the chaos of powerlessness with a degree of order," he explains.

Transition people to focus on the future and the next steps. "Articulating the plan refocuses employees on what one does have control over rather than on what one cannot change," he notes.

Sprague says most clients had already heard the news because of media coverage of Del Brocco's murder. But he and PCI employees divided up the client list and made calls to each one. "We provided reassurance that the firm would continue and we would maintain focus on their projects," Sprague says.

Delivering the news to employees and clients "reaffirmed our principles of communicating quickly and openly, and formulating a strategy before communicating," Sprague says.

Calling In the Experts

Following proper guidelines can help those charged with the difficult task of delivering the news of a co-worker's sudden death. The emotional aftermath, however, needs to be turned over to experts. "It is not the manager's job to solve the problem of a grief-stricken employee," Haag-Hatterer says. "HR should distribute information on the employee assistance program if the company has one."

Managers need training on signs of inability to cope with the loss. "People express grief in different ways—some people get sad or angry, while others withdraw," Haag-Hatterer notes. "Even if it is weeks or months later, if an employee's behavior has changed and performance has dropped, inquire if it is related to the incident." Point the employee to psychologists, medical professionals, support groups and grief education available through the employee assistance program as well as through the American Hospice Foundation, Hope for Bereaved, hospitals and other local health organizations. Some services charge regular seminar rates; others offer programs at no cost.

Depending on the tragedy, the company culture and how many people are affected by the employee's death, VandePol recommends bringing grief counselors on site for one or two days. "Even if utilization of the grief counselors is low, it sends the message that the company cares about its employees, and it provides a safe environment for anyone worried about certain co-workers who aren't handling the loss well," he says. VandePol recommends voluntary, small group sessions with the grief counselors.

Coping—or Not?

  • Recognize signs of grief in the workplace:
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Lack of interest or motivation.
  • Lower tolerance.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Depression.
  • Decreased productivity.
  • Decreased morale.
  • Anger.
  • Increased stress levels.
  • Shifting workloads (a temporary response to loss).

Source: Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

Mary Cheddie, SPHR, senior vice president of HR at Miami-based Interval International, a 3,000-employee company that operates vacation membership programs around the world, advocates strongly for the use of on-site grief counselors. In the event an Interval employee dies, Cheddie arranges for on-site grief counseling through the employee assistance program at extra cost. "I'll pay for it every time I need it, without question," she says. "The productivity loss from not dealing with the death far outweighs the cost of bringing in a counselor."

Cheddie provides grief counselors for four hours a day on one or two days, depending on how many people knew the deceased employee. Each small group session lasts 45 minutes to an hour.

Grief vs. Trauma

HR professionals should recognize the subtle differences between a sad event and a traumatic event, because the latter requires special attention.

"If a co-worker dies in his sleep, the reaction is grief," VandePol explains. "If the co-worker dies in traumatic circumstances or if a co-worker witnesses the death, then the employee experiences trauma. In trauma, you need to deal with anxiety and fear emotions as well as the sadness."

People who experience trauma are at higher risk for absenteeism, alcohol abuse, anger, disengagement or violence, according to VandePol.

Cheddie gets emotional when remembering the recent death of an employee. "He was one of those people everyone knew. He would greet you with a smile and jump in if you needed help," she recalls. The reliable and well-liked employee who had been at Interval for 10 years didn't show up for work one morning and didn't call in sick. When his manager couldn't reach him at his home or on his cell phone, people started to worry.

One of his co-workers drove the missing employee's route from work to his apartment to see if his car had broken down or he was so sick he couldn't answer the phone. When she reached his apartment, she saw him through the window lying on the floor, motionless. She panicked and broke into the house. She called 911, then her manager, who met her there to comfort her.

The co-worker and manager watched as the police taped off the scene and removed their friend in a body bag. The co-worker endured six hours of police questioning because she had entered the apartment and touched the body and other objects in the house. She was under a cloud of suspicion until the coroner determined the cause of death to be accidental choking.

The woman suffered from the trauma of finding her friend and co-worker, watching as he was taken away and then being questioned by police.

In addition to small group counseling to help all Interval employees process their grief, Cheddie arranged one-on-one counseling for the woman who found the deceased employee and for her manager.

"Provide as much support and counseling as possible to the witness, even if they wave you off and say that they're fine. Don't take their word for it," Haag-Hatterer says.

In hindsight, Cheddie says the manager should have called the police and asked an officer to meet him at the missing employee's home to conduct a "welfare check." Hindsight is 20/20, though, and no one can prepare for every scenario.

Cheddie says managers at Interval know to call an HR professional when an employee's death is reported. "HR professionals have the expertise and the resources to handle the steps that need to be taken," she notes.

If an employee collapses at work, Interval managers call for anyone trained in CPR. "The employee is trained to perform CPR until a medical professional arrives," Cheddie says. "We never make a determination of death; that is not our job. We ask the medical professional to continue lifesaving measures until the employee is removed from the workplace. We do not want the visual of an employee in a body bag to be stuck in employees' minds."

Overall, job-related deaths at work are declining. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a preliminary total of 4,547 fatal work injuries were recorded in the U.S. in 2010, about the same as the final count of 4,551 fatal work injuries in 2009. That was a 13 percent decline from 2008.

Lasting Legacy

As weeks pass after an employee's death and life goes on, some employees may ask to honor their co-worker. Companies may collect money for a scholarship fund for the deceased employee's children or set aside a day of community service.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in Arlington, Va., offers the following suggestions:

  • Create a memorial board.
  • Hold or participate in a fundraiser for a special cause or for the family of the deceased.
  • Create a book of memories to give to the family. These will be special memories for the family and a way for staff to privately express their feelings and memories.
  • Conduct a workplace-only event, such as a service day or a luncheon to celebrate the employee's life.

Witnessing just one death, however, takes an emotional toll. Witnesses "may suffer nightmares about the incident or face their own mortality fears. It can be like post-traumatic stress disorder and can hit days, weeks or months later," Haag-Hatterer says.

Communicating with Family

When an HR professional first learns of an employee's death, Cheddie recommends that he or she ask the responding authority—police, health care or fire personnel—to inform the family. "Once we confirm that family members have been notified, we reach out to them to express our condolences and to find out about funeral arrangements," she says. "We then contact the beneficiaries about the benefits, such as life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, and 401(k) funds."

HR professionals need composure, compassion and credibility when making those phone calls.

"Express your sympathy and support, and inform them that you will follow up with administrative details," Haag-Hatterer says. "Usually, the family member prefers to put off those discussions until later, but sometimes people will start asking specific questions. The best way to respond is to acknowledge their need to understand these details but stress that nothing needs to be done right away. It's such a busy, emotional time that people don't remember what you tell them and they can't make clear decisions anyway. So, give them your name and phone number and tell them you will walk them through every detail in a couple of weeks." In the meantime, contact the life insurance carrier and any other third-party vendors to inform them of the employee's death.

Cheddie urges HR professionals to maintain updated employee records because correct contact information for beneficiaries is crucial during this stressful time.

Becky Thomas, a former HR manager at a now-defunct direct mail marketing company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made sure employees filled out new beneficiary forms every year during open enrollment, even if there were no changes.

Time to Grieve

The rituals of a funeral can help close the door on the grieving process so employees can return to work. Attending the funeral—if employees choose to—can be a symbolic and practical part of the process. Allowing employees to take paid time off to do so sends the message that the company valued the deceased employee.

Cheddie says a company representative should be at the funeral, even if the service is held out of town. She recommends that someone from HR as well as the chief executive officer or chief operating officer attend. "The family entrusted us to take care of their loved one for many hours each workday," she says. "We need to show that we share their loss."

For employees attending the funeral out of town, the company may approve paid time off for the day of the funeral but require employees to use vacation time—or unpaid leave if the employee has no accrued vacation time—to travel, Haag-Hatterer advises. "This should be in the policy manual and not something that's determined or communicated immediately after an employee dies," she adds.

Cheddie can't close the entire office for a funeral, so she closes down the department where the person worked. The well-regarded employee who died recently was buried in Pennsylvania where he grew up, so Cheddie spoke with his mother about having a memorial service in Miami. "There was such an outpouring of grief, and employees wanted to gather and remember him," she says. "His mother agreed and flew down to Miami for the service. The employees really valued the service."

Moving On

Sprague closed PCI for two days so employees could say goodbye to their charismatic leader, but they returned to work the Monday after the funeral. "It would have been disastrous if we had closed the office for a week or had taken any kind of hiatus," Sprague says. "People have since commented that getting back to work and the routine helped. I set the tone that we weren't going to ignore the tragedy, but we weren't going to wallow in it either."

VandePol agrees with this strategy, adding that the longer people are away from work, the less likely they are to return: "People need permission to get back to work and [to be] told that it isn't disrespectful."

Getting back to work also means removing personal items and filling the deceased employee's position, both of which are delicate propositions. "During the initial briefing, tell employees how and when the employee's personal items will be sent to the family," VandePol advises. "Communicate with your employees so they know what to expect because if you show up one day unannounced and start clearing the person's desk, no matter if it's a week or a month later, it will seem disrespectful."

Haag-Hatterer recommends that HR professionals find time before or after work within the first couple of days of the employee's death to pack up personal belongings. "Inform the family in that first phone call that you will mail or deliver those items to them or allow the family to come retrieve the items when the office is closed," she adds.

"As people assume their normal work activities, HR can meet with the supervisor to assess the need and urgency of filling the position," Haag-Hatterer continues. "Engage a headhunter confidentially to begin working on finding a replacement without putting it on Monster or other online job boards. After a few weeks, you can begin to advertise the position more openly."

No matter the circumstances, sudden deaths present unanticipated challenges."Like most organizations, we didn't think of this as a possibility," Sprague says. "You don't think about how quickly things can change. While I wouldn't change how we handled things, I wish we had thought about the possibility in advance because there are so many details."

Cheddie encourages other HR professionals in this unfortunate circumstance to do what feels right for the company and its culture. "It's not strategic HR, and it's not comfortable," she admits. "But we must be there for the employee's memory, for the employee's family and for the co-workers to make sure everyone is treated with respect and dignity. As long as you have that, you don't need checklists and policies."


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