When a colleague gets married or has a baby, we have a party. When someone is seriously ill, we send food or flowers. If someone’s job is eliminated, we offer support by way of networking and helping them brush up their resume. But, sadly, sometimes we lose an employee, and there is no playbook for how to handle that. Obituaries do not include that someone has left behind coworkers, but when the worst happens, their coworkers feel the loss in a very real and profound manner, and we need to find better tools to support employee grief. .

The recent tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain got me thinking not only about their family’s suffering, but also their colleagues. We spend a lot of time at work, and get to know some of our staff and colleagues quite well. It can rock the most resilient among us to our core, both because it is an unwelcome reminder of our mortality and because this person was a constant presence in our lives. As leaders in an organization, we need to create a safe place for people to express their feelings of sadness, loss, and hurt. While there is no perfect answer, here are a few suggestions on how to support your employees when the worst happens.

  • Inform, and do it quickly. An email is a good way to let everyone know at once, but for those who worked very closely with the person, make a personal call or share the news in person. Check with the family to ensure that your level of detail is appropriate to their wishes. Having a communication plan will support a culture of being open and transparent and will help squelch the ugly rumor mill.
  • Have a meeting with the entire team. If yours is a small organization, bring everyone together. Make it optional for employees to attend, as not all will feel comfortable attending, but make it mandatory for leadership to be there. Employees need to know that everyone, especially those at the top, are feeling this loss, and as we know, what happens at the top trickles down. If key leaders are missing, it will send the wrong message.
  • If the person reported to you or someone on your team, or if many of your colleagues worked closely with them, meet with each member of your team one-on-one at least every few days in the beginning. A private meeting gives them an opportunity to share feelings they may not want to express in a larger group, and it will go a long way in building trust.
  • Engage your EAP, and I don’t mean simply handing out their number. Have someone on-site, at least for the first few days so that employees who are struggling or just need to talk it out have that opportunity with a professional grief counselor.
  • Give time off to those who wish to attend any services and be understanding of those who do not attend. People grieve in different ways, so it is important to honor and respect that.
  • If possible, give your team the option of working from home. Some people need alone time to process their feelings.
  • Be empathetic. While some people will process and move on, others, particularly those who were friends with or worked closely with the deceased, will have feelings of sadness for a longer time. Check in with those people who are struggling and offer ongoing support and resources. Keep the EAP’s number handy for those employees who struggle longer-term with the loss or find grief counselors in your area that you can refer them to.
  • When time has passed, do something to honor the employee. I’ve seen this done a lot of wonderful ways, including naming a conference room after them, making a charitable donation if the family had asked for donations in lieu of flowers, establishing a scholarship for a student studying in their field of work, or hosting a volunteer day in their memory. It gives employees an opportunity to come together, celebrate their life, and do something positive in their memory.

It will take time for employees to recover, and while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, taking steps to ensure their well-being in a difficult time can go a long way in their recovery.

With personalized service and proven results, Pillar Search & HR Consulting provides retained executive search services and human resources consulting for exceptional non-profits and socially responsible for-profit firms. A woman-owned business, Pillar is based in Boston, MA, and works on the national level. To learn more about how Pillar can assist with your hiring and human resources needs, please contact Cindy Joyce at [email protected].

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Originally published at www.pillarsearch.com


  • Cindy Joyce

    Nonprofit Executive Search and Human Resources Consultant

    Pillar Search & HR Consulting

    My name is Cindy Joyce, and I am the Founder of Pillar Search and HR Consulting, a woman-owned executive search and HR consulting firm that works with nonprofit and mission-driven organizations. In addition, I teach at Harvard Extension School and eCornell, the online education platform for Cornell University. I live in Boston with my rescue lab Neddick, and am a huge fan of yoga, cooking, gardening and extra dirty martinis. I hope you enjoy my articles!