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Created on 22.07.2019

What to do when an employee dies

It is always a loss when an employee dies – both for the company and in a human sense for everyone working there. This is why sensible preparations and a degree of tact are vital in these sorts of situations for any company. We spoke to Ms Stéphanie Berger, a grief counsellor, about how companies can cope with deaths. After all, there is no need for the death of an employee to morph into a crisis.

Ms Berger, how do you rate company awareness in Switzerland as far as death is concerned? Is it something companies prepare for, or do they take things as they come, so to speak?

I have given it a great lead of thought. It often seems to me that companies are just not prepared enough for the catastrophic effects a death can have on loved ones. Seeing as I work as a grief counsellor, I find out from my clients that basic actions are not taken, and things are said that the relatives need a long time to get over.

Do companies generally prepare for employee deaths?

No, that isn’t the case. But it really is the company that is in control here: let’s imagine a man has a heart attack at work, and falls dead from his chair. The very first things done and the very first words uttered will be burnt into the minds of everyone present. For loved ones, the drama begins as soon as the manager phones them up telling them their father or son died an hour ago. For the manager, the drama started an hour ago, whereas for the relatives, the tragedy begins with this phone call. Every word uttered during this phone call will stay in the minds of these people for a long time to come, in good times and bad.

The return on investment, looking at it from a purely material standpoint, may well be zero. Corporate behaviour, however, wins the day.

It could well be the case that a relative goes on to recommend the company to someone else because of its excellent response and how well it looked after its own people.

As a matter of fact, a manager has two tasks in this scenario: one the one hand, you are experiencing a trauma yourself, so you have to take care of yourself, and on the other, you have to try and manage the situation.

This is what’s known as self-care, and it is incredibly important. If you find out an employee died a few minutes ago, this will trigger all sorts of emotions. Managers can show how they feel, possibly saying something like “I am shocked” or “I just need a moment”. This is important. Just imagine if the manager was totally composed and calmly said “Phone the head of HR, clock Mr XY out and switch off his computer.”

It is precisely at this stage when you realize how important your choice of words and response is that it is a very good idea to take your time and to compose yourself.

What might the consequences be if you fail to respond correctly, e.g for relatives?

I want to avoid the word “wrong”, and would prefer to use the word “clumsy” instead. After all, there are presumably no ill intentions behind whatever action is taken. A widow told me of her own experience in which the company responded very clumsily to the situation: her husband had spent several decades working for a company, and upon his death, she received a card with a standard message. There was no personal note in it, no anecdote, nothing. She didn’t receive a wreath or any flowers at the funeral either. A few of her husband’s colleagues did go to the funeral, but they had to take time off or exchange overtime for it. None of the managers came. Small gestures are what can make a big difference. The secretary later called to ask whether the wife could come and pick up her husband’s things, which were handed over to her in a box. The window was unable to visit the place her husband had spent decades working, and where he died. A few small, thoughtful gestures could have made such an enormous difference. A letter of condolences and attending the funeral are a vital part of company grief etiquette.

On this occasion, maybe the company could have offered to clear his workspace themselves?

Yes, that would been enough to help her cope, and the company would have shown its appreciation for her husband. He was a tradesman, so it would have been nice if a colleague of his had come and given the widow her husband’s favourite screwdriver so she could pass it on to her son. Surely a company could manage a screwdriver?

Seemingly little gestures and actions can have an incredible effect. It’s something that hardly seems likely to anyone who hasn’t been through a similar situation.

Of course, not every employee will get a personal visit from the CEO, but an official gesture is still very much warranted. It all depends on how long a person has been working for the company and what their role was. That said, there certainly are companies that do publish an obituary even if the employee was only with them for six months or so. That’s something that really stands out, and in a positive way.

Earlier you mentioned the manager. Whose job is it to manage the situation if there is a sudden death in the workplace?

I don’t want to make this about hierarchy, though. It’s really good if someone takes the initiative, and of course it is something you should speak to your manager about. For example something along the lines of: “I’ve been in a similar situation. May I?” And it’s perfectly possible the answer will be a very grateful “yes”.

The ideal scenario is to always have everyone go through one person, which is why it’s really important to delegate tasks – especially for those affected, who often feel helpless. This is awful for them, and so by keeping these people occupied, you help them cope. One thing you could do, for instance, is ask the people around you to get some water for everyone. Of course, this is by no means a huge gesture, but it does help them feel not quite as powerless.

So far we’ve mainly talked about sudden deaths in the workplace itself. But what if someone passes away at home or when they’re travelling? Is the process different?

I would say the approach is exactly the same seeing as you have an empty workspace the following morning in both instances.

When an employee dies, regardless of whether at work or at home, how do you help a team get through such as a loss as a manager?

You can either take care of the situation yourself or seek the support of a grief counsellor. I personally think it is really nice if the manager actually sees to it in some way or another. You have several different options: you could come up with a coping process based on Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism etc., or you could plan a gradual farewell yourself. It shouldn’t be too long, though, and it’s important it does come to an end at some point.

I once said farewell to an employee together with my team, and I arranged something with the team leader for the occasion. We decided to do something after 30 days first, and then something after 100 days: after 30 days, we cleared the desk, but we did leave pictures behind. After 100 days, we also cleared away the pictures.

If a company does not do anything at all to mark someone’s passing, this will show the employees how little that person was valued by the company,

and by failing to do so, it loses the respect of its employees. It’s appreciation that may not be perceived consciously, but unconsciously.

It is important to have a process in place in the unpredictable event of an employee incident or a loss, in a similar way to how companies have fire drills or how they practise first aid. The emotional aspect of these sorts of situations is so great that you will be grateful you’ve prepared as much as you possibly could already.

About our expert

Stéphanie Berger works as a grief counsellor and offers companies courses on how to prepare for these sorts of situations, which also includes company grief etiquette. Find out more on her website The link will open in a new window (in German).

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