Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dealing with workplace sorrow

Some thoughts on how to try to handle the death of a co-worker

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Most Free Press readers have paid attention to the news of the bus/train crash in Ottawa recently, and even at this distance, each of us felt some of the pain experienced by those who saw death reach out and take a life right before their eyes. It's gut-wrenching to experience the death of a popular workplace colleague no matter how or where this occurs.

After all, we spend a good part of our lives with workplace colleagues and we develop relationships that are sometimes very close, thus, the sudden loss of a co-worker can almost be just as difficult for workplace team members to deal with as it is for other close friends and relatives. A workspace is now empty, email queries and phone messages remain unanswered and projects come to a halt. The colleague is gone and so are the daily rituals of coffee talk and noon hour walks. Reading an email from the colleague one day before their death creates a truly haunting experience.

While it's expected the direct family will take personal time from work to mourn and begin the healing process, co-workers and the employer don't have the same privilege. In fact, like it or not, they have to get back to work as quickly as possible. And believe me, it is really hard for anyone to walk near and/or into a former colleague's workspace and begin picking up the pieces. There's a sense you're invading someone's personal space and there's a sense of guilt and anger about being forced into a situation that creates so much discomfort.

Yet, the manager must muster the strength to quickly assess the financial and workload impact created by this death and put alternative strategies in place as quickly as possible. At the same time, the manager also needs to demonstrate sensitivity to the emotions being experienced by the remaining workers as they move through the psychological and emotional elements of that well known grief/loss cycle.

And it's in this particular type of situation many managers feel inadequate. The following strategies will help you to respect your employee's sense of loss and help move them back into productivity while at the same time respecting the memories of your departed employee.

Recognize the emotions -- everyone reacts differently, but most frequently there is a profound sense of grief and sadness that can trigger past personal memories and lead to depression. At the very least, most employees will be distracted for a period of time and will have difficulty concentrating. Keep in close contact with each employee, observe their emotions, provide a private space if possible and allow employees to talk among themselves. Avoid making personal remarks that can be construed as condescending such as, "you're over-reacting".

Hold a group meeting -- bring employees together to share whatever information and plans you have put in place to deal with the situation. Let employees talk about their colleague and support one another. Let the tears flow. Ask for suggestions regarding attendance at memorial services, returning personal belongings and creating a memory of the former colleague.

Create a workspace memorial -- for a brief time, memorialize the workspace by posting photos and creating a large space for colleagues to write personal comments that can be later shared with family. Create a memorial book for the family that represents the colleague's workplace life. While there's no timetable for the grieving process, if grief appears to be lingering, refer the employee to counselling.

Make a memorial donation -- review your colleague's interests and special contributions and make a memorial donation in his/her name. This could include creating a scholarship for his/her children and/or making a donation to his or her favourite charity. Employees generally feel good about being able to make a donation of this kind and will remember their deed long after.

Reach out to family members -- while sensitive and difficult, it's important to reach out to family members and offer comfort. Send a representative(s) to the funeral, offer to assist and inform the family about what the workplace is doing to memorialize their colleague. Send cards and flowers as appropriate. Finally, assist family members to understand the company benefit plans and help them to progress through the various requirements.

Show consideration -- grief grasps each person differently, so be sensitive to the fact people may not be at their best for a brief time. Cut them some slack, offer support and demonstrate understanding. Be a good listener, avoid rushing away from a conversation and avoid discounting employee feelings by directing them to "get over it."

Avoid personal guilt -- whatever the circumstances, as a manager you must not take personal responsibility for your employee's death unless of course, it was a unfortunate workplace accident. In most situations, there was more than likely nothing more you could have done to prevent the death. Therefore, be sure to not to beat yourself up by rehashing earlier conversations and/or disagreements, or challenging assignments. What is, is.

Curb personal anger -- yes, the death of a co-worker will create a short-term crisis and cause project delays that will have a financial impact, but it is important you curb any signs of personal anger. This is a time when managers need to work on building trust and respect. Remember, you're the role model. Keep in mind that employees will be observing your behavior.

Avoid hasty workplace decisions -- while it's important to sustain work momentum, it's best to review and quickly prioritize while holding off any re-assignment until you can fully assess the situation. Avoid making permanent appointments too quickly as this will be perceived as insensitive, which in turn can cause resentment. Leave the workspace empty for a period of time if possible. Then, re-organize the job role if this makes sense.

Prepare employees for change -- at some point; you'll have to bring on and introduce a new worker into the workplace. However, it's important not to think of and/or refer to this person as a "replacement." If possible, create a new arrangement by re-organizing and/or re-assigning work tasks or going so far as to rearranging workspace furniture. Brief employees on the new person while at the same time, alerting the new employee to the circumstances he/she might encounter.

The sudden death of a co-worker is always an unwelcome intruder. We are shocked and numb and can't seem to reconcile the words "colleague" and "death" in the same sentence. Everyone in the workplace can feel it. It's gut wrenching, yet all of us must grasp life and move forward. Yes, handling death in the workplace is a very hard role for a manager, yet it's important for managers to take the lead and help employees to get back on track as quickly as possible.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, M.Ed., CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 H1

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