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When an Employee Grieves: A Checklist for Managers

How to react when an employee is grieving a loss? In this article you will find

  • Suggestions for immediate measures
  • Ideas for the first conversation with the grieving person and the colleguaes / team
  • A checklist of points you can clarify with the bereaved person before their first day back at work.
Did I miss something? Do you have a question? Please leave me a note at hallo (@) trauer-coaching.de.

Tips for Managers when Faced with a Bereaved Employee

If a team member loses a family member or a close friend, it often falls to the bereaved person's manager to maintain contact to talk about the employee's needs and well-being, sometimes over a period of absence.
How to handle the situation?

Tips for immediate action

  • Write to the employee, express sympathy (see below)
  • Organize flowers or a card from the Team
  • Re-distribute tasks and projects
  • Be careful sharing details about the death, esp. with the team, without the consent of the grieving employee
  • Make sure to take good care of yourself! (there is more on this in the article "When an employee dies").

Inspiration for a first conversation

Whether by telephone or in direct contact: Often, the manager seeks or maintains contact with the bereaved employee. With this, they can be a person of trust, even while representing the employer at the same time.
Another role of the manager covers, even in this situation: They protect the interests of the team and the organization as a whole, for example when it comes to work re-distribution in case an employee is absent for a longer period of time due to a bereavement.

  • Offer condolences, and consider looking for a phrase beforehand
  • Open the dialog with an open question only, if you can handle the answer: Is there anything you would like to tell me? Confidentially, of course!
  • Consult: What should the colleagues know? What is ok for them to know? What can the manager say?
  • Discuss wording, for example: "X is absent due to a bereavement" - is that ok? Can there be more details? If yes, what is ok and what not?
  • A very general phrase could be: "XY is out for a while, I'll let you know as soon as I can tell you more."
  • Stick to the agreed upon wording when talking to colleagues ad-hoc or in the next team meeting. Only share what the grieving person explicitly approved (more in the article on communication).
  • Ask about the level of involvement, the bereaved colleague looks for: Would you like colleagues to get in touch? Or would you prefer a break from messages?
  • Actively address open tasks without building pressure. You could e.g. say something like: "If you can think of a project or task that you would like to hand over, please do. Otherwise, we'll take care of everything that comes up."
  • Agree on a follow-up as detailed as possible, ask for example: "How can we to stay in touch? Can I check in the day after tomorrow?

Stay in contact until the bereaved wants to return to work

Some bereaved people want to return to work quickly - for reasons as diverse as structuring their daily life to the feeling of being in control of something at least. Others return after a longer period of sick leave.

No matter how short or long the absence, from 3 days to several months: Returning to work will probably be difficult for the bereaved employee. If you can make it possible for them to return to their job on their own terms, you will probably find them extremely thankful... a good foundation for loyalty.

There are a few things you can do to make this step easier for everyone, including the colleagues in a team. Please read all suggestions are to be understood with the additions: "if possible" as well as "if the bereaved is open to them":

  • Taking the pressure off to return quickly or to “perform” as before — this is immensely helpful for many bereaved!
  • Whenever possible, leave choices and ask for their needs: What can we do to make things easier for you? Do you have any ideas? Or things you would like to avoid?
  • In Germany, you can alleviate the concept of gradual reintegration (according to Hamburg model). You, your HR departement or you manager need to agree to this, as well as the employee - and it is a wonderful tool to help a bereaved person after a significant loss to ease back into work.
  • If possible: What else can help? Can you redistribute work for a time, creatively apply company regulations, work distribution and safe spaces can help?
  • If possible: Now might be a good time to find creative work time solutions that bring needed flexibility, with e.g. overtime accounts, temporary part-time work, sabbaticals, etc.
  • Make sure to give special vacation days without being asked.
  • Discuss the pace for taking back responsibility and readjust this in regular 1:1 conversations.
  • Instruct colleagues about coordinated timetable.

Agree before they come back to work:

  • Re-consult with bereaved employee: What does the manager share with the colleagues? What does the grieving person share? And what is off limits?
  • Discuss details of everyday collaboration: Are there any needs unmet? How would the bereaved like to be treated? Is it ok for colleagues to mention the loss? Or to ask questions? Also: It is ok if the employee prefers to keep your loss in the background at work — it can still be a nice gesture (at least) to offer to cut them some slack.
  • As a manager, you might have to balance the needs of the bereaved employee and other colleagues. If that is the case, ask all parties to be considerate with each other.
  • Agree on frequency of contact: "How often do we talk?" This helps, for example, to readjust agreements or discuss the workload.

Take care of yourself as well!

Facing someone else's death can be a burden for you as a manager. Where can you find support? Who do you talk to?

Maybe you know someone in HR you can talk to, or your own manager or a "manager friend". And of course you can also make use of external coaches (like me).

This is part 5 of a series:

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