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This article was published 21/10/2011 (3292 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Have you ever experienced the sense of gnawing, raw pain that results from the death of a loved one? If so, you know this pain is gripping and numbs one's thoughts to such an extent your breath is taken away.
There is such a tremendous sense of loss. A dark cloud seems to hang over you as your mind races and swings back and forth from shock to anger to sadness and confusion. Tears flow easily. And yes, while the sadness and pain dissipate and lessen over the years, it doesn't take much to bring those feelings back from those painful memories.
This same pain can occur when you experience the death of a colleague. Just ask those who have experienced this trauma over the past little while. Believe me, death of a colleague can hit individuals and organizations equally as hard. After all, over time, colleagues become part of our work-life family. We may even idolize and envy their skills and expertise. As well, we spend long hours with our teammates -- we laugh together, we learn together, we face challenges together, and we celebrate together.
Sometimes the colleague who has passed on is our boss and/or an organizational leader. While this represents a different type of interpersonal relationship, none the less, these leader colleagues have been important to us in our specific job roles. They may have provided day-to-day as well as long-term guidance and career advice. Or, they may have led the success of an organization or a political party, the fruits of which you now enjoy. As a result, the death of a leader also creates a good deal of personal pain, not unlike that which arises from the death of a family member.
However, while family members may take more time to grieve, this is not a luxury that is afforded a business. The void from the loss of leadership and/or the loss of an individual's key skill must be filled urgently. A business can't simply stop its operations for days at a time. Customers are waiting. Shareholders are wanting.
Therefore, the challenge for a business is how to gracefully provide an effective transition without offending families and employees, while at the same time assuring customers that life is business as usual. Not only that, the business must also deal with the sense of loss being felt by its employees as this grief can greatly affect the level of productivity and overall morale.
There are no right or wrong ways for a corporation or organization of any kind to grieve the loss of a colleague. However, there are some proven strategies that will help you cope and to express grief in a healthy and constructive way. These efforts will be appreciated by customers/clients, the family and the remaining colleagues. Taking care to focus on a careful transition will assist your organization to show respect while at the same time moving on. Consider the following:
Communicate, communicate, communicate -- There is nothing worse than hearing about a colleague's death on the news. While this cannot be helped in some circumstances, take emergency action to communicate as much information and as quickly as you can to your employees. Prepare a communiqué to your clients/customer base and assure them that business will carry on as usual.
Put plans in place quickly -- When hit with the news of a death, individuals will feel the usual grief symptoms, but they will also quickly become anxious about the stability of their own career situation. Hopefully, there is a backup plan in place, but if not, develop that plan on an emergency basis and make it known to everyone concerned.
Be prepared for questions -- Brainstorm the type of questions you anticipate the employees will ask. Prepare a question and answer sheet and ensure that all managers work from the same script. You will be surprised what questions will arise. Do the same for your clients and customers. Provide contact numbers for people to call or email with additional questions.
Coach your managers -- Whereas most people are uncomfortable dealing with death in the workplace, you will need to coach managers on how to deal with grief and loss. Stress the need for patience and understanding. Point out the corporate initiatives and review the prepared question and answer document so that they will feel more at ease. Advise them to ensure they maintain an open-door policy.
Provide employee grief counselling -- For those associates who were much more close to the departed colleague, provide onsite grief counselling. This is frequently available through your benefit insurance provider. If this is not available, there are several vendors available upon whom you can call.
Respect employee privacy -- While you may offer group discussion sessions to deal with employee grief, there are many employees who prefer to grieve in private. Therefore, respect that there may be a few closed doors and subdued communication. On the other hand, some employees might return to their desk and work their heart out; leave them alone to grieve in their own way.
Show respect for the family -- Be in contact with the family immediately. Send a note and/or flowers as is appropriate. Work with them to determine how they would like the employer to be involved in ceremonies and celebrations. Provide support and help make connections. Send representatives to attend services. Assist with any clarifications of company benefits and entitlements. Offer to forward personal belongings rather than leaving this task to the family.
Honour the individual during the workweek -- Design an appropriate memorial activity. One example is to keep the individual's office door shut for one week, tape a large sheet of white paper on it and invite colleagues to write their thoughts. Paste photos of past celebrations and/or add a memento of some sort. Help the employees to share their grief. Celebrate the individual's contributions.
Create a family memorial gift book -- There are many activities at work to which families have not been privy. Take some of your best photos and/or other memories from work and create a family memorial book. Give the book as a gift to the family. While they may not review it upon receipt, they will very much appreciate it at a later date.
Raise money for a cause -- Look for a simple way to raise money in your colleague's name. Dedicate the money raised to the colleague's favourite charity or to the charity that the organization has supported over time. Start a scholarship, a fund or dedicate an event in the colleague's name. Be sure to involve the family.
Put future communications in place -- Some families wish to keep in touch with the former employee's workplace. For instance, they want to see the results of their loved one's project coming to fruition or they may want to be included on the company newsletter list. On the other hand, many families are not able to handle this type of relationship. Inquire and make arrangements to meet your family's need.
Managing a death in the workplace is awkward for everyone. Develop a plan and apply sensitivity and good judgment.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC. CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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