When a colleague dies

October 24, 2022

Written by
Emily Foy, UK Country Manager and Senior Consultant

When a colleague passes away, this has an impact on the whole team. How the death of an employee is handled can impact on the relations between the employer, their team, the family of the individual and the wider community, so it is important that it is handled sensitively.

When a colleague passes away, this has an impact on the whole team.  It can be especially traumatic if the death was unexpected, or if the individual had been at the firm for a long period of time.  How the death of an employee is handled can impact on the relations between the employer, their team, the family of the individual and the wider community, so it is important that it is handled sensitively. 

Grief can affect different people in different ways.  It can touch on all aspects of a person’s wellbeing – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.  Everyone may react differently and there is no “one size fits all” approach.

The initial hours and days following a death are often the most difficult for HR professionals and managers, who are often not only dealing with the practicalities arising and supporting the emotions of their colleagues, but also trying to grieve themselves.  

It goes without saying that it is important to communicate the death in a sensitive and appropriate manner.  If possible, try and notify those employees who were closest to the individual as a priority and, ideally, face-to-face.  It may be more practical to then circulate the news to other employees in your organisation by email but consider then arranging a meeting or video call to remember the individual together and answer any questions your employees have.  It may be appropriate to have a spiritual care leader or grief specialist available to speak with employees after breaking the news. Allow staff members to take time off if they feel they need to immediately after the death and consider a phased return to work for those most affected.

Contact the family or closest friends to offer your condolences and to answer any questions that they might have about pay, benefits, death in service or pension arrangements.  Make it easy for them to contact you moving forward with any questions that they have. Remember that the family may have other priorities, such as wanting to clear a desk of personal mementos, or may not want to liaise with you at all initially. Every family handles the grieving process differently.

After the initial notifications, ensure that the death does not go unnoticed or unmarked, and the team is not immediately required to “get back to work”. Try and make space available for colleagues to gather to remember the individual and to spend time reflecting if they are struggling to focus on work. Remember also that the death of a co-worker may reignite someone’s grief over another loss. Provide employees with information about funeral or memorial service arrangements (if appropriate) and allow and encourage co-workers to attend without taking time off work, if they wish to do so.

There will also be practical and logistical responsibilities to attend to, such as the individual’s workload and to whom this should be allocated and, if the employee was client facing, how clients will be informed of the death in a sensitive and timely manner. Follow any formal internal policies for reporting the death of a colleague and make sure that all appropriate bodies are informed.

When dealing with the loss of a colleague, especially as an HR professional or manager, everyone may be looking to you for direction and support. Remember that you are all grieving this loss and there may be overwhelming expectations placed on you to support everyone’s emotional and logistical issues. Be sure to check in with yourself and your support system to ensure you also receive the support that you need.
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