Navigating Through Tragedy: A Leader’s Guide To Handling The Loss Of An Employee

Chad C. Harvey
6 min readMar 13, 2024

--

A PERSONAL NOTE

I sincerely hope that you never need to read this article in its entirety. I would be pleased for this post to have zero views and never be referenced again. Unfortunately, that’s an unrealistic wish.

During the past eight months, three of my clients have lost employees under tragic circumstances. As a result, I’ve become better equipped to support leaders as they navigate such horrible situations. I’ve written this article as a guide that business owners, executives, and managers can refer to as they support their teams amid the grief and disbelief of an unexpected loss.

Within this guide, you will find:

  1. Six high-level steps after the death of an employee
  2. Key takeaways
  3. Checklist for leaders
  4. Additional resources

In the face of loss, we’re reminded of our shared humanity and the collective strength within our business community. It’s in these moments that coming together in support and understanding becomes not just valuable but essential. This guide aims to be a beacon for those navigating through the storm of grief, fostering a culture of compassion and resilience while emphasizing the importance of compassionate leadership and mental health awareness in the workplace.

Consider this article a “Break glass in event of emergency” type of document. Hopefully, you’ll never need it. However, if you receive the unthinkable news that you’ve tragically lost a team member, drop me a line. We’ll get through it together.

SECTION I: SIX STEPS AFTER THE DEATH OF AN EMPLOYEE

The loss of an employee under devastating circumstances, such as an accident on the job or suicide, presents one of the most profound challenges a leader may face. The ripples of grief and shock can unsettle the entire organization, making compassionate, thoughtful leadership more critical than ever. As a leader, while you may not have all the answers, your actions during these times can provide immense support and guidance to your team.

Here is a roadmap for navigating this delicate situation:

1. Provide Emotional Support

The initial step is to acknowledge the pain — both your own and your team’s. Leaders must process their grief to authentically support others. Active listening plays a crucial role here; offering a safe space for employees to express their feelings can foster a healing environment. Creating a culture where vulnerability is recognized as a strength empowers everyone to share and heal. Leaders can lead by example, showing it’s okay — even courageous — to express emotions and seek support.

2. Encourage Open Communication

It is vital to create a supportive atmosphere where team members feel comfortable sharing their grief. Providing access to professional counseling services or mental health support and openly communicating the availability of these resources can offer practical help beyond the immediate aftermath. Consider organizing professionally facilitated grief sessions. These workshops can provide valuable tools to help your team members understand and process their emotions constructively.

3. Let Your Core Values Guide You

Leadership vulnerability can set a tone for the entire organization, showing that it’s okay to grieve and seek support. Balancing the maintenance of business routines with sensitivity to the team’s emotional state is a tightrope walk, but it’s necessary for gradual healing and return to normalcy. In moments of crisis, let the organization’s core values be your guide. They serve as a compass, ensuring that even in the darkest times, your organization stays true to what it stands for, fostering unity and resilience.

4. Pay Tribute to the Person Lost

Consider ways to honor the memory of the deceased employee, always in consultation with the individual’s family. When planning memorials or tributes, actively involve your team in the decision-making process. This inclusivity ensures any actions resonate deeply, truly honoring the memory of the departed.

Now is also a critical time to review and update company policies related to mental health and crisis response, ensuring they are comprehensive and compassionate.

5. Care for Yourself

While supporting your team, don’t overlook your own well-being. Leaders should not hesitate to seek professional help for grief processing. Self-care is not selfish; it equips you to be a stronger pillar for your team.

6. Promote Mental Health Awareness

Transform this tragedy into a catalyst for change within your organization by increasing mental health awareness. Educating your team about how to recognize signs of distress and offer support can build a more empathetic and proactive workplace. Initiate regular mental health check-ins and consider establishing peer support groups. These actions underscore the importance of mental well-being and foster a supportive community within the workplace.

SECTION II: KEY TAKEAWAYS — THE ESSENTIALS FOR RESILIENCE

The journey through grief is personal and varied for each individual. As a leader, your empathy, support, and understanding during such times not only aid in the healing process but also strengthen the bonds within your team. Remember the following takeaways for fostering a resilient and compassionate workplace culture.

  • Compassion and Empathy: These are your guiding stars. Let them inform every decision, communication, and action you take.
  • Communication: Keep lines open, remain transparent, and be supportive. It’s not just about sharing information but also about fostering a space for collective healing.
  • Balance: Juggle the continuation of business with the need for human compassion. It’s okay to slow down and accommodate the grieving process.
  • Education: Use the experience as an opportunity for growth, both personally and organizationally, in understanding and supporting mental health.

Remember, you’re not alone in this; seeking guidance from grief counseling or organizational psychology professionals can offer further specialized support tailored to your unique situation.

SECTION III: CHECKLIST FOR LEADERS

This checklist provides a structured approach for leaders to navigate the challenging process following the death of an employee. It helps ensure proper communication, support, and organizational handling of the situation.

Stage One: Immediate Response and Communication

☐ Call 911 (if the fatality occurred at the work site).

☐ Contact OSHA at 1–800–321-OSHA if the death/accident is work-related.

☐ Notify employees/executives with the most critical need to know first, including HR.

☐ Send a spokesperson to the hospital to meet the individual’s family.

☐ Notify remaining employees and indicate details will be forthcoming.

☐ Notify customers/clients with direct relationships with the deceased and reassign work as appropriate.

☐ Arrange grief counseling for employees through EAP or your local hospice.

☐ Provide time off, preferably paid, for grieving employees.

☐ Begin termination processing following normal procedures.

☐ Arrange for packing and delivery of the individual’s personal belongings.

☐ Document all actions and communications during this period for transparency and to serve as a guide for any future needs. This ensures clarity and consistency in how to handle tragic situations.

Stage Two: Handling Arrangements and Keeping Business Moving

☐ Before making any public announcements or tributes, consult with the deceased employee’s family. This step is crucial to ensure actions taken align with the family’s wishes, demonstrating respect and sensitivity.

☐ Determine where to send flowers or other in-memory gifts based on the family’s wishes.

☐ Process COBRA paperwork for dependents covered on the group health plan.

☐ Terminate health insurance benefits according to the policy as of the date of death.

Stage Three: After the Funeral/Final Wages/Benefits Processing

☐ Consult with legal counsel to navigate the regulatory and legal obligations during this sensitive time. This ensures all actions are compliant and respectful of both the law and the employee’s legacy.

☐ Locate beneficiary designations for all benefits.

☐ Treat accrued but unused vacation, sick, PTO, etc., in accordance with state law or company policy.

☐ Determine documentation needed to process benefits paperwork for life insurance, pension/401(k), workers’ compensation death benefits, etc.

☐ Inform employees if donations are requested in lieu of flowers.

☐ Arrange time off to attend services.

☐ Consider creating a physical or digital memorial board for employees to honor their deceased colleague.

☐ Consider a workplace celebration of life, such as a luncheon where employees can support each other during the grieving process and celebrate their deceased colleague.

☐ Consider creating a memorial fund/scholarship in the colleague’s memory.

SECTION IV: ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

These organizations, websites, and articles offer valuable information and insight to help leaders guide their companies through the shock and heartbreak of an employee fatality.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential support for people in distress, offering prevention and crisis resources.

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Checklist for Construction Companies

This checklist includes sections on the company’s readiness to assist suicidal employees, building protective factors, and crisis response.

The 9–1–1 Leaders’ Post Tragedy Care Checklist

This resource offers step-by-step guidance for leaders in providing ongoing support to personnel after a death, emphasizing preventive education, intervention, and long-term support efforts.

Harvard Business Review — Leading in Times of Trauma

This article highlights the importance of demonstrating compassion as a leader during times of tragedy, emphasizing the role of leaders in easing collective anguish and confusion within the organization.

Originally published at https://chadharvey.com on March 13, 2024.

--

--

Chad C. Harvey

Strategist, Executive Coach, Vistage Chair, servant leader, domiciled itinerant, dispassionately passionate, occasional gourmand. #ChadHarvey