In normal circumstances we often find Human Resource policies associated with death set as Bereavement or Compassionate Leave Policies. In other words, the focus is on allowing paid and unpaid employee time off from work when a family member, relative, friend or pet dies. This reassures the employee that the employer cares about the needs of employees who are experiencing bereavement.
But what we do not set as a policy is or procedure is when death happens to the employee or a group of employees at the workplace. It is vital that the employees do understand this aspect of the policy and procedure because beyond just having bereavement leave or compassionate leave it will project a sense of composure and transparency to the family and kin in the event something does happen.
We must recognise the fact that a lot of the nonprofit jobs, although not high profile, are considered a risk when it comes to safety and health. For example, when working with communities that deal with a certain disease or an area that is prone to certain calamities or a neighbourhood that has a high incidence of murder or kidnapping.
There is no doubt that as a manager, one of the most difficult situations you may face in your career is managing the aftermath of the death of an employee and the multiple repercussions that may affect your work group or department. Because a critical incident of this nature may be traumatic for co-workers of the employee, it is recommended that the Human Resource personnel must be trained in how to counsel or manage a situation by knowing how to manage the problem and discuss with the family. There are times when an employee could suffer from a stroke etc. What do you do?
Research has shown that early intervention is critical and it reduces the stressful impact of the news and the stress to the management especially when they know what to do. Effectively managing an extremely emotional situation means delegating certain duties associated with the death to those who are more detached from the situation.
Because death is an incident that can result in a traumatic stress response, it is recommended that Human Resources have a list of contacts to facilitate a debriefing session for all affected employees within 24 to 48 hours after learning of the death. Research has found that early intervention with a work group reduces the possibility of delayed stress responses and enables the work group to return to their normal level of productivity sooner. Another benefit of the debriefing is that the organisation and its management staff are viewed by employees as responsive and caring people.
Since each member of the work group may grieve the loss of their co-worker in different ways, it makes sense to recognize that need. Provide ways for these emotions to be channelled and recognised. There is a wide range of normal and appropriate reactions to grief.
When you contact an agency or external organisation for support, they will ask to provide whatever relevant information available regarding the death of the employee and your assessment of the work group’s reaction to the situation. A one to two hour debriefing session or meeting for employees should be scheduled as soon as possible.
Listed below are areas that should be considered when trying to establish a policy and procedure that is known and available to all while they are still alive and well to read. The STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE should be customised to the culture, sensitivities and nuances of each organisation but at the same time, having the overarching values instilled.
¤ ANTICIPATE POSSIBILITIES OF DEATH ARISING AT THE WORKPLACE
This is a very important brainstorming process that although may appear to be morbid and dreadful it is extremely important for any nonprofit to prepare themselves for any possible eventualities and therefore this exercise to discuss and raise possibilities can sometimes be a revealing and significant moment for all those in the session. It will certainly place everyone in a mindset of planning forward and not being regretful.
¤ REACT SOON NOT LATER
No matter how one learns from the brainstorming exercise, waiting to take steps is not right and proper. It should be seen to be an immediate action as we do not know what could the possibilities be. Preparation and urgency are key and to act now will save a lot of remorse, bad vibes and misunderstandings.
¤ PUT YOURSELF IN THE SITUATION WHEN DECIDING ON THE PROCEDURES
It is extremely important not to assume that what you have decided as the steps to manage a death in the workplace is the right one. Make the assumption that you are the next of kin or the family member or better still the fly on the wall listening to the discussions. This is the time when management is challenged to take the high moral ground and at the same time practical and pragmatic, for the immediate to short term.
¤ HOW TO REMEMBER AND RECOGNISE THE EMPLOYEE
It is important to understand and study the relationship of the employee with his/her co-workers as well as with the management. Making efforts to welcome group or individual responses by having memorial bulletins with photos or videos, holding a workplace luncheon to honor the deceased or having a minute of silence before every meeting for a week will help honour the ex-colleague. In addition, developing a montage or stories and sentiments into a material form for the benefit of the family or raising some funds for the employees’ family will take the organisation far in terms of its kind gesture.
¤ ADDRESSING THE OFFICE AND PERSONAL BELONGINGS
For such a matter it is important there is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that will give authorisation to the Human Resources or the Supervisor/Manager to handle the tasks of clearing the desk of the staff. Having a family member to be there is a welcome gesture as there may be personal items to be collected. The authority to clear the desk includes attending to the voice messages, office phone, emails, posts and the in-tray.
¤ UNFINISHED WORK
There must be an immediate and short term plan of how to organise and coordinate the work in the event of the loss. Knowledge management becomes key and systems that are in place must come into effect in order to ensure business continuity. Still, having a way to alert the customers or stakeholders of the loss and explaining to them, what will happen in the meantime, is vital. It is important to lessen the level of anxiety among staff, customers and stakeholders by having a clear, transparent and temporary plan which has clear delegation and separation of duties with timelines spelled out.
It is best not to make any abrupt moves in regard to space changes; people need time to grieve the loss of their co- worker before seeing his or her workstation is dismantled. In a month or so, there will be more acceptance of the changes which come from the loss of the co-worker. How long will this take has to be made clear. Thus, having the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) early will allow for others to understand the organisation is following a system and that nothing is personal.
¤ THE REPLACEMENT EMPLOYEE
Under the best of circumstances, a new employee needs to be prepared for possible negative comparisons with the deceased employee. If the deceased was particularly well-liked, the transition will be even more difficult. It is advisable to give staff notice of the new employee’s start date, relevant work background and to prepare them for the change. It is a normal part of accepting a loss to welcome someone new.
¤ LOSS OF WORK PRODUCTIVITY AND MOTIVATION
As the manager, expect the death of an employee to result in lower productivity and motivation for a brief time. The debriefing held soon after the announcement will ease the impact of loss, but it cannot be avoided entirely. Eventually, the work unit will return to its normal level of functioning.
It is important to remember that a death to an employee, student, customer or visitor at the office represents a loss. The issue for an organisation to demonstrate, it has prepared itself for such an eventuality is to respond to such an event in the best way possible that it shows it is caring and understanding. Therefore, a policy of such nature will provide direction in terms of process and procedures to be followed, including roles and responsibilities of departments and certain senior personnel.
1. Necessary Losses, The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow, Viorst, Judith, Fireside, 1998. Section IV, Chapters 16 through 20 are particularly significant in regards to loss and grief.
2. Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, Scribner, 1997.
3. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Kushner, Harold, Avon, 1997.
4. A Death in the Workplace: A Guide for Family and Friends. Queensland Government 2018. [https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/82716/a-death-in-the-workplace.pdf]
Special thanks to Mr. Harikannan Ragavan from Jayadeep, Hari & Jamil (JHJ) for taking the time to read the article sharing his views.
Dr. Sudeep Mohandas is the author of his second book Nonprofit Management: Trials and Tribulations. He is also the Co-Founder of I First International a consultancy firm that offers professional services to the Senior Management and Boards of nonprofits and purpose based organisations. He is an Internationally Recognised Professional Certified Facilitator (IAF) and is a Board Member to the World Institute of Action Learning (WIAL).