Communication Helps Co-Workers Cope with Sudden Death

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Over the weekend, the baseball world lost a rising star. Jose Fernandez, a young, talented pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

This news story reminds us how important it is to communicate the sudden, unexpected loss of a colleague quickly and with sensitivity and tact.

I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing two co-worker losses over my career. In one case, a co-worker died from a bacterial infection after delivering her baby two months prematurely. In the second scenario, a co-worker had committed suicide in his apartment. I had to convince my manager to share the news of this worker’s death personally in a staff meeting rather than by email, which she wanted me to send out. Email might seem easier and more convenient, but it can come across as cold and impersonal when a more delicate touch is needed.

It helped that both of these co-workers worked in small offices of less than 50 people so it was easier to communicate their deaths than it would have been if they worked in larger companies.

Delivering news of a co-worker’s death is one of the most difficult communications issues a manager will ever face. Emotions are raw. The news may still be fresh and you haven’t had time yet to absorb it.  There is a need to remain calm so you can help employees deal with their grief even as you struggle with your own.

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Psychological Association offers suggestions for communicating the news to employees and helping them cope with their loss.

1. Deliver the news quickly and personally. A group meeting is best for small offices or departments, while a conference call will be better for remote workers. In larger companies, news may best be shared in department meetings. Avoid using email as it can be cold and impersonal. If the deceased employee was well-known or worked in a small work environment, their co-workers will likely want to hear the news firsthand.

2. Set up a telephone tree to share the news with managers. Begin with the HR manager, who may be responsible for contacting a handful of other managers, who will be responsible for calling people in their department. The news will filter down through layers of management that way.

3. Allow staff members to grieve and share their feelings with one another. This could be in a separate meeting among staff, or with a crisis counselor. If an employee is having an especially hard time with grief, allow them time off to attend the funeral or to cope with their loss.

4. Take advantage of employee assistance programs if your company offers it. Experienced counselors can offer support and advice and help make plans for memorials and other gestures of condolences to family members.

5. Honor the employee’s memory. After sufficient time has passed, perhaps several weeks or months, employees, especially those who were closest to the deceased, may decide to remember their colleague. Planning a fundraiser, creating a memory book of photos and mementos, hosting a community outreach day in their memory, or honoring the employee at a staff luncheon are just some ideas that can help workers put a positive light on a terrible tragedy.

Learning of a co-worker’s sudden death can be an unsettling experience for everyone in the office. Communicating the news with sensitivity and tact is key to helping workers cope with the loss.

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