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Dealing with Death in the Workplace

No one likes to talk about death, but it's a reality that could intrude in any company at any time. What does a death mean for your staff and how should owners handle it?

Death of an employee
When death becomes personal and hits your staff, owners have obligations to their employees, the family of the deceased, and the government:

  • Provide support for the deceased employee's family. Extending condolences goes without saying. This may be verbal or with flowers, a fruit basket, a charitable donation in the employee's memory, or another tangible gesture. Find out about funeral arrangements and determine whether you and your staff can attend (if you can provide flexibility to enable this, your employees will be appreciative). Later, you can advise the family about benefits to which they may be entitled as a result of the death (e.g., qualified retirement benefits; group-term life insurance).
  • Handling your staff. Share information about the deceased employee's death to the extent that it is appropriate (e.g., what the family wants to share and what does not violate HIPAA rules). Also, share funeral details and the name and address of the family member to whom cards and other sentiments can be sent. If required for the situation, offer grief counseling to staff to help employees cope with the death; referrals to outside agencies or professionals providing this counseling is doable in any size business.
  • Reporting requirements. There were nearly 4,000 worker fatalities in private industry in 2013. When an employee's death is work-related, you are required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report it within 8 hours. Find details about reporting here.

The death of an employee entails other business actions.

  • Close for business. Depending on circumstances, it may make sense to close for the day of the employee's funeral.
  • Notify other business connections. Notify vendors, customers, and others who dealt directly with the deceased employee; offer a new point of contact in your company.
  • Find a replacement. While each person is unique, a death may leave a hole in your staffing needs. Use sensitivity in seeking a replacement.

Death of an employee's relative
What are your responsibilities to an employee when a spouse or other close relative dies? Here are some considerations:

  • Express condolences. Ask the employee whether he/she wants to share information about the death and funeral.
  • Time-off policy. Clearly, an employee needs time off to deal with this event, including time for the funeral. However, depending on the circumstances, some employees may need additional time off to deal with grief and handle personal financial matters. Review your time-off policy to make sure an employee can take the time needed without concerns about losing pay or position.

Death can be tragic, but your response to it in the workplace can make a tremendous difference to everyone who is affected.