June 23, 2023

Handling an employee death is a delicate and sensitive situation that requires empathy, compassion, and clear communication. Although your business must continue operating and serving customers, you must also prioritize employee mental health during this difficult time.

The #1 rule to keep in mind: Don’t try to power through the grieving process. Let’s explore more in this step-by-step guide on how company leaders can offer support and handle the necessary notifications following a death of a colleague.

1. Notify the immediate team.

Notification of an employee death is the first step and sets the tone for the rest of the staff and the grieving process. 

Once you confirm the family has been informed, gather HR, the deceased employee’s immediate team members, and other coworkers who were close to the employee to inform them of the sad news personally. Ensure you have a quiet and private space for this discussion. 

Offer support and provide an opportunity for team members to share their feelings and express their grief. Tell everyone that you will share more information once available, such as funeral or memorial details.

2. Communicate with the rest of the organization.

Depending on the size of your company, consider the most appropriate communication method for the employee’s death announcement. This could include an email from senior leadership, a company-wide meeting, or both. Be mindful of the sensitivity of the situation and express condolences, emphasizing the availability of support resources.

You may also handle this by informing other executives and managers first. Each department can then have a more intimate meeting to discuss the beloved employee’s passing.

Tactfully coordinate with the deceased employee’s team to determine what work must be immediately covered and delegate as necessary.

3. Give your team time.

Everyone grieves in different ways and timeframes. Grief expert David Kessler, who co-developed the five stages of grief™ with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, says of the stages, “They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.”

Avoid rushing the grieving process by minimizing the event and trying to move on too quickly. This can actually cause grief to linger after an employee death if people aren’t able to work through it. And trying to force your staff to forge ahead without sufficient time to reflect, share, and pay their respects can lead to bigger issues later.

Lead with empathy and don’t be afraid to show emotions. Let your employees know that it’s ok not to be ok—we’re all only human. This comes from the top down, so you’ll set the example for the rest of your leadership team. Managers can hold team meetings to give people an outlet to talk things through.

If possible, lighten everyone’s workload that week and provide bereavement time so people can attend the funeral or memorial service.

4. Provide grief counseling and support.

In addition to allowing your team to share and work through grief together, you should also provide access to grief counseling services immediately after an employee death by:

  • Referring them to your employee assistance programs (EAPs), if you have one. The EAP professionals can direct employees to the right services.
  • Bringing a grief counselor onsite for a set time for employees who want to talk to someone in person.
  • Providing virtual or phone grief counseling service or directing them to the Grief Recovery Hotline (800-445-4808) or recovery organizations like GriefShare.org.

These resources can help staff members cope with their emotions and provide professional guidance during this difficult time. Communicate the availability of these services clearly and encourage employees to utilize them if needed.

5. Reach out to the deceased employee’s family.

Designate a senior leader or HR representative to personally reach out to the family of the deceased employee. This person should express condolences, offer support, and inquire about the family’s wishes regarding communication with other employees or clients.

You may also need to maintain communication with the family while tying up the paperwork and loose ends, such as final paychecks, taxes, and benefits.

6. Communicate with clients.

Contact any clients or customers who had direct interactions with the deceased employee. Express condolences on behalf of the company, acknowledge the impact of the loss, and assure them that alternative arrangements will be made to meet their needs. Introduce a new point of contact and provide any necessary information or updates to ensure a smooth transition.

7. Memorialize and honor the employee.

Consider holding a memorial or tribute event to honor the memory of the employee. This can provide an opportunity for colleagues to come together, share stories, and grieve collectively. 

Additionally, consider other ways to remember to create a memorial for the employee within the workplace, such as:

  • Establishing a memorial fund or scholarship: Consider making a financial contribution to a cause or organization that held significance for them or a scholarship for aspiring professionals in their field. This gesture can serve as a lasting tribute and support a cause that was important to the employee.
  • Creating a memorial award or recognition: Institute an annual or periodic memorial award or recognition based on qualities or values that the employee exemplified, such as teamwork, leadership, or innovation. Recognizing others who embody these characteristics can help keep the employee’s memory alive and inspire their colleagues.
  • Dedicating a physical space or artifact: If possible, create a memorial wall or garden. Or try a simpler option like a dedicated seating area with a plaque or a photo. You could even get creative and display an item that held significance to the employee, like a piece of their work or personal memento.
  • Incorporating the employee’s contributions into company culture: Highlight their achievements and positive impact in company newsletters, internal communications, or during team meetings.
  • Supporting a charitable cause in their name: Did the employee support a particular nonprofit or cause? Consider making a one-time gesture or an ongoing commitment, such as an annual donation. Share this information with employees so they can get involved, too.

Approach these ideas with sensitivity and involve the family of the deceased employee in decision-making whenever possible. Their input and preferences should be respected throughout the memorialization process.

Every situation is unique, so you should adapt your approach based on the company culture, employee preferences, and local customs. Be flexible and responsive to the needs of your employees during this challenging time, and continue to provide support and resources as long as necessary. 

An employee death is not something business leaders want to think about—but having an overall plan and resources ready will help ease the process and pain when the unfortunate happens.

Do you need help navigating an employee death or putting a plan in place? Contact our experienced, empathetic HR consultants today at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com to learn more.

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.