How to Respond to Co-Worker and Employee Bereavement

A Death in the Family and Other Bereavements Require Employer Support

Bereaved Man With Head In Hands

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Sad things happen to employees and coworkers. Family members die. Family members and friends get ill and have car accidents. Sometimes, coworkers experience life’s sad moments themselves. These are the people with whom you spend the most time nearly every day of the week.

When bereavement and grief happen to your coworkers, you can be profoundly affected, too—and you also want to know what to do. The employer and coworkers can offer support and assist employees to deal with personal tragedies in the workplace.

The manager and Human Resources staff are key when bereavement or grief strikes an employee. They hopefully have a relationship with an employee such that they would be called, informed, or knowledgeable about what is taking place in the employee’s life. Additionally, most time off policies requires the employee to call their supervisor. Most occasions of bereavement and grief require time off from work–and sympathy and comfort from managers and coworkers.

How to Offer Sympathy

Who does an employee call when tragedy enters his or her life? The boss. When an employee calls or stops by with a sorrowful life situation, managers need to offer genuine sympathy and support as a first step. Then, managers need to be prepared to talk to the employee about options available from the company, no matter the circumstances of the employee’s problem, bereavement, or grief.

Managers should involve Human Resources staff who will be up-to-date on possibilities such as the bereavement time off policy, Family Medical Leave Act time off, and so forth. HR staff will also know who to contact about health insurance benefits, short and long-term disability applications, and life insurance.

These are the first steps that generally occur when an employee experiences one of life’s sorrows. It is important that company managers and HR staff are caring, supportive, knowledgeable, and forthcoming about the employee’s options, and timely in their response and efforts to assist the employee.

How Organizations Can Offer Sympathy

Companies approach employee sorrowful experiences in different ways. Employees in companies have done much for employees who are experiencing sorrowful or tragic events including a family death. These ideas will help you choose an appropriate way to express sympathy.

  • Collect money for a struggling employee.
  • Take a dish to pass at a funeral dinner or wake.
  • Line up employee volunteers who provide home-cooked dinners for several weeks for a bereaved family or a family with a loved one requiring daily hospital visits.
  • Send flowers or a plant to funerals, homes, and hospitals.
  • Have coworkers close to the employee sign a group card.
  • Employees who are close to an employee who has had a death in their family are encouraged to attend, the wake, memorial, or funeral.

Almost all employee and coworker voluntary contributions to assuage the sorrow of a stricken co-worker are welcome and appreciated—except one. Please don't go to an employee's home or the hospital without checking with the employee or his or her family first. Your visit may not be welcome; your call might be welcome. But, ask first.

Beyond providing information, it is also appropriate for the company to send flowers to honor death in a family, an ill employee or family member, or a family with a premature baby. The list of employee problems is endless, and as such, provides frequent opportunities for the employer to offer sympathy and care.

A simple note that says that you care and are keeping the employee and his or her family in your thoughts is sufficient. You may also ask permission to alert other employees to the employee’s situation—if they don't know. As the employer, you cannot broadcast this confidential information without permission, but you want to offer the employee the opportunity to give you permission.

Employee Confidentiality in Bereavement

You will most often find that the employee agrees that you may let other employees know. Also most frequently, the employee has already let his or her coworkers know, and they have initiated a series of events to help the employee. As the employer, your job is to offer to facilitate and assist employee-sponsored actions when you can.

Because you care about all of your employees and certainly want to appear to care in the eyes of the other employees, you cannot develop any pattern of discrimination. So, all employees deserve the same regard and succor.

The Bottom Line

These ideas will help you deal with the bereavement and grief that is regularly experienced by your employees and coworkers. Most of the sorrows don't occur at work, but they flow over into the workplace and affect co-workers and friends. You can assist employees to deal with their bereavement and grief by providing support and sympathy.