Death in the Workplace: How do you handle it?

 In Business Success, Leadership, office politics, Organizational Change

Here are two real examples and very contrasting ways to deal with death in the workplace. Have you experienced these? Which do you prefer?

The Death of a Colleague: No Grieving Allowed

Death in the Workplace: How do you handle it?

Pete worked for his company 40 plus years. He worked his way up to executive. He continued to work into his 70’s as a troubleshooter for the company. I remember meeting him when I started working there. I asked him why he was successful, and he leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I didn’t go to college!” Then he told how he’d spend time with the employees every morning, talking to and listening to what was going on with them. After a while, we didn’t see him much. began hearing rumors about his whereabouts: on the golf course, a secret assignment etc. Finally, the real answer came out that he had died. There was no meeting, email, or announcement. We had to dig around to find out the arrangements. The bottom line was that it’s done, he’s gone. “Next!”

The Death of a Colleague: Compassion and Caring

Death in the Workplace: How do you handle it?

Contrast the above behavior with another company. One Friday evening, one of the owners of a successful smaller company, Bill, died unexpectedly. Upon learning of this, his business partner quickly contacted the management team and had a phone conference that weekend. Monday morning, all managers held meetings with their teams to share this shocking news. Another manager meeting was held after that, to check in on them and their employees. An all-employee meeting was organized later that Monday morning, including a luncheon for everyone, to gather, grieve together and talk. At the luncheon, the business partner talked with compassion about the person who had died and with empathy for all those at home and work. The grieving process was discussed and support was provided to all that needed it. Questions were handled about ‘what’s next’? As much as possible, fears, anxieties, and concerns were handled delicately. Later, serious and funny stories were shared about Bill’s commitment to their mission/vision/values. Assistance was given throughout the week until the visitation and funeral. Communication was delivered openly with understanding and care.

Final Thoughts

Co-workers are our extended families. Coping with loss is a very personal thing. It affects all of us in different ways. It can’t be ignored. Psychologists say it’s important for people to share their feelings about the person that died, and use employee assistance or other programs to talk about things. (if they are available)

It seems to me that in too many organizations employees are regarded as cogs in the wheel, to be discarded casually and often without recognition. The emotional side of people’s lives is sorely overlooked. Companies can learn to do much better. In a few companies and with some leaders, employees are valued partners. Compassion and empathy are part of their culture. Wouldn’t it be honorable if it was the rule of corporate behavior instead of the exception? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

Death in the Workplace: How do you handle it?

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Rick Conlow
Rick Conlow is the CEO & Founder of Rick Conlow International, a consulting, training and coaching firm. He has helped over 200 companies such as Target, Costco, Andersen Windows, Spectrum, Northern Power, Meijer, Carpet King, International Truck, John Deere, Lowes Financial, and Canadian Linen improve customer loyalty, increase sales and add profits. Rick has been a general manager, vice president, training director, program director, and national sales trainer. He has authored 22 books, and regularly speaks at conferences and to audiences of all sizes.
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