News of the recent deaths of several well-known celebrities, including music icon David Bowie, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, and renowned actor Alan Rickman, got us thinking about the touchy subject of death and grief in the workplace.
The way a workplace manages the challenges around grieving employees, whether a fellow employee has died or when a team member has suffered a loss in their personal lives, makes a tremendous difference to employee morale and connectedness to your organization. Mishandling the situation can bring a landmine of HR issues and potentially hurt feelings. The best way to handle it is to plan ahead and take steps to ensure managers treat employees fairly and consistently.
Losing a team member
In the unfortunate event that a colleague passes away, you should not underestimate the feeling of loss and disruption in your workplace. Eyes will be on the management team to see how it reacts and if it allows time for adjustment after such a loss. The sudden, unexpected death of a co-worker will require you to deploy different strategies than if someone has succumbed to a long-term illness. But either way, you should not expect fellow employees to take the loss lightly.
Management must communicate to fellow team members about the loss in a way that is caring and respectful. Take the time to gather employees together to share feelings and discuss next steps, which could include holding a memorial for the individual or arranging for anyone interested in attending the funeral the ability to do so. Ensure that you are consistent in your approach and remember that regardless of the length of time the deceased was with the company or the seniority of their position, the impact of the loss to the organization may still be a difficult one.
Anna Aceto-Guerin, senior HR consultant at Clear Path, encourages employers to utilize their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) during these situations by reminding team members to take advantage of the program. Depending on the circumstances, management might consider providing a grief counselor on the premises to assist with the aftermath following the news of an employee's passing. The benefit of EAP intervention is that employees can speak to a counselor in private and be provided with strategies to handle their loss. The grieving process is different for everyone and you must be patient during the weeks and months following a loss.
Time off for grieving
Things could get tricky when it comes to paid time off for those grieving the loss. In Ontario, there is no requirement for bereavement leave under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), but many businesses have established policies that give a certain number of paid days off as an employee benefit.
However, most policies limit the paid days to relatives (with a higher number of days for immediate family such as a spouse, parent or child). If an employee is requesting time off to recover from the loss of a work colleague, you might suggest they utilize accumulated sick days (if your company offers paid sick days) or a non-paid leave of absence. Be fair and consistent with absences granted for this purpose but also remember that certain circumstances may require you to make exceptions to established policy. Take the situation into consideration each time and it necessary reach out for advice on how to handle a particularly difficult situation.
Replacing an employee who has died
The potential need to replace the worker who has passed away brings with it a special need for sensitivity and respect for those who worked with the deceased. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the position, your company may be able to delay this process for a while in consideration of the feelings of the person's colleagues. Should you need to delay the process for replacement, consider setting up an internal resource to cover the position in the meantime to ensure that business needs are met and people have someone to go to. If a delay is not possible, proceed with your regular recruitment practice while being as sensitive as possible with everyone involved.
When an employee suffers a personal loss
When an employee loses someone in their personal life, management should be equally as cognizant of the need to be sensitive to their needs at that time. HR should advise the individual of the company's policies regarding paid time off for bereavement, along with recommending the use of an EAP program (if applicable). As mentioned, there is no requirement to give paid time off under Ontario's ESA, but refusing to do so may be seen as a very unsympathetic response during a time of loss.
Encouraging your supervisors and co-workers to be patient with the individual in the period following the death is an important step. Relieving the person's workload on a temporary basis may also be an option for your company.
Need some assistance?
Have you established employee policies, such as one for Bereavement and Absence? If not, or if you would like some assistance updating your policy book, get in touch with Clear Path today. Certified HR professionals like Anna Aceto-Guerin can guide your company through the process and help you manage any people-related challenges you may have. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (519) 624-0800.
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