Managing People: What Do You Do When An Employee Loses A Loved One?

I am pleased to share my latest article written for the Philadelphia Business Journal.

We all know that employees do not leave their personal selves at the workplace door. The experiences we have outside of work inform who we are at work.

That is why we spend so much effort – or we should – on helping develop a culture that makes it easier for employees to manage work and life. But, there is one part of life that is often left out: death.

That brings me to Option B by Facebook COO and author of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, and her friend and psychologist, Adam Grant, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Originals. A fantastic collaboration, Option B is based on Sheryl’s loss of her husband, Dave, and her painful but inspirational journey forward.

Option A is the employee’s life with the loved one. Option B is surviving without him or her.

While the focus of the book is emotional resilience, the book is also a clarion call for leaders (and other colleagues) to be more supportive when an employee loses a loved one. The platitude, as Sandberg apyly calls it, “sorry for your loss,” is not enough.

Here are eight (8) recommendations for business leaders (and other colleagues) to consider that are based on the book (as well as my own experiences and observations.)

1. Bereavement Leave 

Many companies provide a few days of paid bereavement leave. That may be enough for some, but it won’t for all. It was not for Sandberg. Consider offering more unpaid time, where feasible. Of course, if PTO is available, be flexible in allowing the employee to use it.

2. Talking with Employee

For some, it is easier to give grieving employees time off than it is to speak with them. Sandberg wrote about employees avoiding her so that she felt “isolated.” And, we are talking about one of the most successful and powerful leaders in America.

Sandberg states that people were afraid bringing up the subject would remind her of Dave. When I heard Sandberg speak, she said “you cannot remind me of Dave.” His absence is never absent.

Don’t avoid the person or the topic—unless you receive a signal to do just that (discussed below).

Talk with the employee. But what do you say? Or, not say?

3. Please Avoid

Be careful not to say things that you may intend to be comforting but may come off as dismissive or designed to make you feel better:

  • “He is in a better place.” No he’s not.
  • “With time, you will feel better.” That may be true, but bromides like this are not helpful at the time.
  • “I know how you feel.” It’s not about you.
  • “Everything happens for a reason.” And, there is a reason I want to get away from you.

4. Offer to Help But

Easier to know what not to say than it is to be clear on what to say. Well-intentioned people often say “how can I help?”

But, as Sandberg explains, this well-meaning gesture shifts the burden to the grieving person to find a way for the colleague to help them. No bad intent, but a bad result.

Don’t ask generally “how can I help.” Instead, ask “can I do X?” Or, just do it.

Pick up a task for the employee to get rid of a loose end. Do something kind, like buying them a cup of coffee. Do something specific!

5. And, Getting More Direct 

So, now we have dealt with doing. It’s time to get to feelings.

Should you ask how the person is feeling? How should you ask?

As an initial matter, don’t ask if you don’t want to hear. Ask only if you sincerely care.

Avoid “how are you” and ask instead “how are you today.” Why?

Sandberg: “I described how a casual greeting like “How are you” hurt because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened. I pointed that out that if people instead asked “How are you today?” It showed that they were aware that I was struggling to get through each day.”

6. Should You Relate?

Sometimes, in the act of caring, we share our own loss to let the person know we have a sense how the person may feel. But, we remember, we all grieve differently.

It is okay to share a loss and mention that you may have an idea of how the person feels. But don’t pivot to your loss. Not the time for person to take care of you or for you to work through your own grief.

This is delicate balancing act. I try to say: “I don’t know how you feel but I lost my dad and it was and is very hard for me. I am available to talk if you want to talk about the loss of your dad/mom.”

7. Be Careful How You Care

I know: caring can create legal risks. If an employee tells you they are depressed, and you later terminate them for poor performance, they could argue that you terminated them because you perceived them as mentally disabled.

But there is a real risk not caring, too. Employees who at their emotional nadir remember who helped them when they are emotionally stronger. If they don’t feel they were cared for when they needed it most, they may leave your organization.

Sandberg: “Providing support is both the compassionate and the wise thing to do.” The support engenders “a more loyal and productive workforce.”

Further, you can mitigate the legal risk but listening more than talking. That’s a good idea independent of the law.

Also, avoid clinical labels, such as “depressed” in talking with or about the employee. Again, this is good ideas independent of the law: you are a colleague; you are not the employee’s therapist.

So care. Just do so carefully.

8. Give the Employee What They Need 

Not always obvious, it is not about making you feel good about helping. It is about trying to make the unbearable a little less so for your colleague.

And it’s not about the golden rule: Sandberg:

“Growing up, I was told to follow the golden rule … instead of following the golden rule, we should follow the platinum rule: Treat others as they want to be treated.”

Some employees may want to talk. Other employees may want to keep things private. Respect their wishes, either way.

There are a lot of ways as colleagues we can help with Option B. Thank you Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant for talking about the Elephant in the Living Room.

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.