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Managing a death in the business

The worst and most tragic situation for any business is when a team member passes away, through illness, accident, suicide or otherwise. Aside from the obvious support that your people and the deceased member’s family should receive from your business, a major challenge is how to keep the business going.

Any death of a team member hits the business hard. Sometimes, where the colleague was a senior executive, a partner, an accounts manager, one who had a major part to play in the business with external clients or was extremely popular, this can be especially difficult.

What should you be doing to keep the business going whilst still grieving and being respectful?

Here are some steps for you to consider.

When should you tell your people about the team member’s death?

Usually it is best that they know as soon as possible. This will depend firstly on the person’s family being informed (e.g. by the police in the case of an accident, or by other family members). It is not appropriate to inform your team prior to the family having been informed. Sometimes because of social media we know details of a death very soon after it has occurred, so we need to be respectful to the family. Nominate someone to be the conduit between the business and the family. It is far better for one person rather than several to be involved.

What should your team be told about the person’s death?

Be honest – but respectful to the family. Try not to use overly emotive words. For instance a death in a car accident might be referred to as ‘fatally injured’ rather than ‘killed’.

Who should know?

All of your people should be informed. You need to also consider people who have left the business in the past 12 months as they may have been closely associated with the deceased. Clients will need to be informed and ideally by one person, preferably by phone or face-to-face.

What support should be provided for staff?

Your organisation should provide on-site counselling, irrespective as to whether this will be utilised. The message that the business is being supportive to all team members will be appreciated. This support can be for the team as a whole and/or for individuals. If you have an EAP (employee assistance program) the provider can assist with logistics.

How are calls and emails (and other forms of contact) managed?

Team members who may be receiving calls should be provided with a statement they can make to the caller about the deceased team member. If there is a receptionist who is receiving all calls, then it may be an idea to relieve them occasionally to reduce the risk of them being overwhelmed by repeated references to the team member.

The team member should be removed from all group email lists as soon as possible. Emails directly to them will need to be forwarded to an appropriate person in the business. An ‘out of office’ message is optional but should be brief and not provide any specific details to ensure that people are not receiving a tragic message each time they inadvertently email the team member.

Is there anything else?

Client files and other aspects of the role where records will need retrieving need to be in the domain of as few people as possible. Often the team member’s handwriting can trigger emotional responses so care must be taken to manage this as sensitively as possible. Follow up with your team one week and four weeks after the death. Some people have delayed reactions and you need to show understanding that symptoms can persist or emerge some time later.

You may wish to have a small function to honour the team member, such as a morning tea. This allows people to grieve together and can be a powerful mechanism in coming to terms with their colleague’s death.