How should HR handle the death of an employee?

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The unfortunate task of delivering hard news to employees often falls to HR, and while death is never an easy subject to deal with, having a protocol in place ensures that the matter will be dealt with appropriately and professionally.

Losing a colleague – whether it was expected or not – is highly traumatic and can have far-reaching consequences in the workplace. Having a plan to address death and its consequences for the workplace and staff is essential; getting it wrong can be catastrophic.

According to Jeff Goodright, a workplace training specialist good action plans will address questions such as “How do we inform employees that a member of staff has died” and “How do we manage the workload reallocations and desk-clearing process?”.

Action to take and points to consider:

  • Notify all employees via their supervisors, following a general notification to management. Notifying employees of the death of a co-worker can be one of the toughest jobs a supervisor ever has to do. While it is important that employees be notified promptly, it is also important that the supervisor carefully plans what to say, and HR should be able to assist in this.

  • Deal with the deceased’s family sensitively. You’ll need a contact person who can provide funeral details, answer questions about the family’s wishes and arrange to receive outstanding payments and benefits due to the employee.

  • Designate an internal contact person for employees who have any questions or concerns, thus preventing the danger of employees trying to contact the family directly. This person can also deal with flowers, notes of condolence etc.

  • Send out a notification of the employee’s death to relevant external contacts.

  • Arrange to redirect phone, voicemail, e-mail and mail communications.

  • Plan for counseling for employees where needed.

  • Work with grieving employees and allow appropriate time off where needed.  It is reasonable to expect that many, if not all, employees who worked with the deceased will be unable to complete their work the day of the announcement, and this reaction should be anticipated.

  • Work out a clearly stated policy for employees to take time off to attend the funeral.
  • Supervisors should be reminded to observe sensitivity - many co-workers may have known the deceased on a personal level, and their grief may affect their behaviour and performance.
  • In most situations, the employee will have personal belongings at work. It may be difficult for co-workers to see these items removed. Make arrangements for a member of the employee’s family to collect those items after a respectable amount of time has passed-have boxes and packing materials available.
  • Lastly, replacing the deceased too quickly may make co-workers feel that the organisation did not value the contributions the deceased made. Consider having someone fill in on a temporary basis or leaving the position open for a period of time.


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