How To Handle the Death of a Coworker

Posted on March 7, 2019


Today’s Buzz is by Kylie Bayer, HR Manager with the City of McMinnville. LinkedIn & Twitter

What I’m Watching: Schitt’s Creek and I have never laughed harder. Highly recommend.

What I’m Reading: White Oleander, I never read it!

What I’m Listening to: an HR podcast, Kammersations. It’s a podcast through our benefits/insurance provider, Citycounty Insurance Services (CIS), and it’s all about the nitty-gritty issues with employment law. You may need to be a CIS member to access the podcast.

Typically I write about fun HR topics (yes, HR is fun). This topic isn’t fun at all. I thought about it when I received a notification on LinkedIn that personal friend of mine who recently passed away should celebrate her 23 year anniversary at her office. It prompted me to search for my old coworker, John, who died in 2011 and saw his profile was still active. So here’s my experience losing a close coworker. I promise, my next buzz will lighten up a bit. FYI, this process takes on a whole different direction if an employee is killed in the line of duty or dies as a result of an accident in the workplace. That #MorningBuzz is for another day.

Getting a frantic call from my coworker’s spouse telling me that John had died the previous night is still my most vivid work memory. I had no idea what to do. John and I sat 10 feet from each other and worked in the communications department. Now that I’m in HR I hear how it’s frowned upon to build friendships at work which, in my humble opinion is complete bullshit. Some of my closest friendships have been with coworkers and as long as you don’t let a friendship negatively affect your work, you have my permission to be friends with coworkers!

John and I were total opposites when it came to our personalities (Myers Briggs even confirmed it!) but we clicked anyway and became fast friends when I started my first real job in local government. We worked well together on projects even though we spent a lot of time giggling and telling jokes. The best crack-up we had was when our supervisor answered the phone on speaker (WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?!) and his wife said “Oh! You’ve got to come home! The cat is upchucking everywhere!” We practically fell out of our chairs.

One day, as a joke, I asked if John would come to the piercing shop because I wanted to pierce my nose; even though he was part of a very conservative religion (which I learned at his funeral when half the congregation added me (faux hawk, tattoos, nose ring, and all!) to their prayer list) John was game and even drove me to the shop on our lunch break. Everyone who knew John absolutely loved him. Even my mom, who saw him every six months when she cleaned his teeth.

In August 2011, when his wife called my cell phone screaming that John had died the night before I had no idea what to do. Another coworker and I walked into a large management meeting to yank the HR Manager out of the room to tell them what had happened.

So, here is a list of tasks to complete and things to anticipate if you are ever in this situation as an HR professional, supervisor, or coworker.

  • Promptly communicate the news to all employees. This information should come from the city manager, chief administrator, or HR director. Work with your communications team to craft the message thoughtfully. If you don’t have a communications team I guarantee some rockstars from ELGL would be willing to help you out. Just ask. Here is a template for the communication from the Society for Human Resources Management.
  • In that message to staff, communicate information about your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Employees may look for support as they grapple with this news.
  • If possible, include a message of support from your mayor or council president. Consider lowering the flags at city buildings to half-staff for the week following their passing.
  • You may want to bring a grief counselor on site to meet with employees. This is often a benefit through your organization’s EAP. The Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District did this when the husband of a longtime employee was killed in a motorcycle crash and it was helpful for employees who had just received the news.
  • Officially separate the employee from the organization using your personnel action process. This should engage IT to remove the employee from email lists, prompt HR to close the personnel file, and put an end date on any employee benefits the employee had.
  • HR should assist the family with life insurance and retirement information. Your organization’s insurance policy may have other benefits such as assistance with funeral arrangements or even EAP services for family members once their group insurance plan ends.
  • When communicating any information to the family, do so in writing. Losing a loved one is traumatic and many people will forget details from conversations. Provide a letter or email with all of the information so they have something to look back on if they have questions.
  • Assign a point person for employees so they don’t overwhelm the family with questions about funeral arrangements, etc. That point person will likely be the employee’s supervisor or HR, or maybe a close coworker.
  • Coordinate with HR to clean the employee’s workstation. Sometimes a family member will want to assist with this task, sometimes not. I recommend asking the family if they would like the organization to bring the employee’s personal items to them. When this happened at THPRD the employee’s wife wanted to box up his personal items. We also placed flowers at his desk after everything was tidied up. Remember to include your IT department as you tackle this task. There are likely files in the employee’s electronic folders that will be needed at some point. IT can also scrub the folder of personal photos or documents and send them to the family on a flash drive.
  • Keep your business operations in mind, but please try to allow for employees to attend the funeral or memorial service (preferably as paid time).
  • It feels insensitive, but post the position and manage the recruitment like any other. Review the job description, make changes if necessary, craft an announcement, and run through the recruitment process.
  • At some point in the recruitment, candidates will ask why the position is open. Be honest with them. There are some candidates who may steer clear of taking the position, and that’s OK.
  • When the new employee starts, make sure the workstation is clean and free of personal items from the deceased employee. We made that mistake when the new communications specialist started at THPRD in 2011. I think everyone was so distracted with the loss of an employee we didn’t appropriately tidy the space to welcome our new coworker (sorry, Bill!)
  • The supervisor or team should send a note to the family on the employee’s next work anniversary letting them know you still think of the employee often and that you miss their presence in the office. Those thoughtful touches mean a lot.
  •  Contact LinkedIn and let them know the employee has passed away. LinkedIn will deactivate their profile so they will no longer be searchable and their contacts won’t get the awkward “congratulate so-and-so on their 15 year anniversary with City XYZ.” Requesting LinkedIn deactivate John’s profile made me feel weird and sad.
  • Be understanding that people deal with grief in a variety of ways. Some employees may really struggle with the situation while others may not. Exercise empathy and emotional intelligence and support your staff and coworkers as best you can. I cried at my desk for weeks. Then Bill joined the team and I cried from laughing so much. If you have to replace a coworker due to a death, try to hire someone who does improv and stand-up comedy, it makes the transition easier.

The Society for Human Resources Management has a whole checklist that is more applicable for HR employees; check it out here.

Do you have any other tips on how to manage these situations? Send me an email or a tweet and I’ll add them to the list.

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