Blog: Doing the right thing when a worker dies


Doing the right thing when a worker dies

A colleague's demise is a traumatic experience for everyone. Simple acts of kindness can bring to fore HR's human side
Doing the right thing when a worker dies

Anita* died and went to heaven. The passing away of a colleague is a reality. No matter how much we hope against hope, sooner or later, we come face to face with such an eventuality.

Anita was 29, vivacious, popular and hardworking. By time the doctors discovered what was wrong with her, it was too late. Her distraught father conveyed the sad news to Anita’s supervisor the same morning, a few hours after she passed away. Wires burned furiously as the news began to spread. Anita’s supervisor and the company CEO were en route to the office. They immediately turned their cars around and made their way to Anita’s house. It was the right thing to do.

Anita’s demise became the hot topic of whispered office conversations as the grapevine, always ahead of official internal communications, quickly carried the news to all the company’s offices worldwide. Expressions of shock and sadness spread all over the network. “Have you heard…?”, “She was so young!”, “What really happened?” The predictable, late morning communication was sent from the CEO’s email id – drafted by someone in HR or PR, with a suspiciously familiar turn of phrase. Reactions and comments poured in from people who per force of habit hit the ‘Reply to all’ button. A few people decided to attend Anita’s funeral later that day. They carried a wreath of flowers with a card that said ‘from your colleagues at XYZ Ltd.’

By the end of the week, it was business as usual. Anita’s replacement was identified. Very organized. Very professional! Work went on!

The workplace has often been described as the primary spouse – not surprisingly – given that more than half our waking life is spent in office. The legally wedded spouse – the ‘till death do us part’ one – quite grudgingly, takes second place. All the English of ‘family-first’, notwithstanding! It’s a formidable amount of time, spent together, by a bunch of people who are related not by blood – but by work!

A good policy has no substitute
There are many practices that organizations follow. Some documented in well crafted policies – others are spontaneous, from the heart, from people who truly care.

There is no doubt about the importance of a policy to handle the demise of an employee. Circumstances around this unfortunate event often have legal implications for the company particularly if the death has occurred while the person was on duty – in office or outside. Death, due to accidents at the workplace, has even wider ramifications.

A sound, fair, legally valid and transparent policy sets expectations straight – well in advance. It ensures that the employee’s nominees receive due compensation. It provides for unbiased enquiries and probes where required. It is the voice of clarity in what could otherwise become a nebulous and emotion-filled situation. Optically, a good policy also protects the company and its leaders from showing up as the ‘bad guys’ in the eyes of the rest of the employee constituency.

It must be remembered that unlike most other company policies, the policy that covers the demise of an employee should be focused on the employee’s family. Also keep in mind that claims will be made by people in grief who have no idea about company procedures and processes.

Some companies have gone a step further by including a section in their leader handbooks for ‘handling traumatic events’. This defines ‘things to do’ when faced with traumatic events like the passing away of a colleague.

Gosh! How check-box can we get? A colleague has passed away and boxes are being ticked! A tad insensitive, whatsay?

Viewed objectively, a check-box approach does have its merits. It helps reduce the awkwardness people feel when dealing with death. It caters to locally unique socio-religious customs that need to be followed and ensures that the fundamental courtesies are extended in a proper, organized and dignified manner.

  1. A communication from the CEO to all employees
  2. A condolence visit to the home of the departed employee by the CEO and her/his immediate manager
  3. A wreath of flowers and personal attendance at the funeral or at a prayer meeting organized by the deceased employee’s family
  4. A memorial meeting in the office
  5. And the caution, to managers, not to commit to the family anything they cannot deliver for sure. It happens! A very human reaction in an emotionally charged situation.

This is the time when the bureaucracy marches in…

Those inconvenient financial claims
Now, Anita may have gone to heaven, but her family got dragged through hell because of one single element: Claiming Anita’s financial dues!

For a grieving family, money is usually at the bottom of the priority list. But let’s face it, death does not come cheap! And since Anita died after an illness, her medical bills had burned a huge hole in her family’s finances. Because Anita had never needed it before, her family was not aware that she was part of a company mediclaim program. Or that she was part of a group life insurance scheme. Consequently, no one knew the claim procedures, the paperwork required until a kind and experienced accountant brought up the subject. Only then did things start to move. By then, more than three weeks had passed since Anita’s demise!

The good news is that financial dues like balance of salary, cashable leave etc, which are under direct control of the company, can and mostly do get paid quickly. However, Provident Fund (PF), insurance and other third-party dues take time and serious follow-up. Many companies use the services of ‘consultants’ for government-related claims and those of a TPA for insurance claims. While this assistance helps, the painful paperwork still has to be done by the family of the deceased. Anyone who has been involved in the process to claim the PF of a departed family member will confirm the added grief it causes – starting with the insensitively designed claim forms, which are guaranteed to add to the heartburn and pain of the grieving family.

Here are some questions for you, dear Reader: Who is your nominee for your PF? Have you updated your nominee after you got married – had children? Does your nominee know that they have been nominated?

Being the repository of company policy, HR can – and proactively please – facilitate the claim process. Help is readily available. Properly verified consultants for government liaison, the deceased employee’s immediate manager and workgroup colleagues could be requested to assist. Few will refuse.

But all this is fundamental. Making everyone feel that they’ve done what could be done. Or is it? There’s actually more to the human side.

‘Non-process’ acts of love, that give the family of the deceased colleague the most solace – and touch the hearts of everyone else. Simple acts of kindness that come spontaneously from those who loved and cared for their colleague.

The HR team should step forward to facilitate and encourage these personal acts, either personally or through the business leader. Overt encouragement brings an added sense of comfort to the employee population at large that their company is truly sensitive and cares for them during such a personally trying time.

Allowing colleagues to grieve.
The workplace is a conducive platform for special relationships to quickly get formed. Friendships, where the most intimate and personal secrets are shared. Despite the fact that no one may have ever visited the others’ homes! The office is itself a second home. It’s only natural, given the time spent working, competing, sharing successes, lunch and those late evening instant noodle dinners when the work pressure mounted. Many of these relationships grow very strong, very personal and very emotionally binding.

So when a colleague passes away, there is a great sense of personal loss within the workgroup and among those who were close to the deceased. Psychologists caution that people tend to ignore the pain that comes with this feeling. People try and act normal or maybe just shed that secret tear by the coffee machine, or in the washroom, when no one is looking. Pent up feelings of grief are like a ticking time bomb. The fallout could cause spells of unexpressed despondency and depression, resulting in lower productivity and poor physical health.

People need some time and space to come to terms with their loss. Here are some ways in which colleagues can grieve: A small-group memorial service where everyone is encouraged to share memories of their dear departed colleague; a designated private area, where co-workers can mourn; meditation sessions under the supervision of certified experts; counseling sessions with a professional trained in grief-management; encourage colleagues to ask for help if they need it; support informal rituals like clearing the desk or handing over his/her personal effects to the family.

Creating a Memorial
Memorials need not necessarily be imposing stone edifices or religious either. A collation of condolences for the family: Immediate colleagues, senior managers, clients, vendors and anyone who interacted with the departed colleague could be invited to share thoughts and feelings. People could share a memory, write a few words of comfort, share photographs, anything that could be collated, compiled into a well-prepared folder and presented to the family. This compilation of tributes gives the grieving family immense peace. The solace of knowing that their departed member was very much loved, respected and will always be remembered. Place a photograph of the colleague on her/his desk for a week as a tribute. People may be allowed to put flowers and cards at the desk. More permanent memorials could include a well designed, moderated page on a popular social media site where people could ‘Like’, ‘Share’, write tributes and put up pictures; a sensitively designed memorial section on the corporate website with a photograph and brief description of the deceased employee; a plaque on a prominent wall in the office; naming a meeting room after a deceased employee; instituting a scholarship; naming an annual industry event like a symposium or seminar – specially if the employee had once participated in or worked towards the same.

For large organizations with the budget and the space, employee memorials could well be imposing edifices.
Two of the most wonderful employee memorials that come to mind are:

  1. The ‘Eleven Tears’ memorial at the American Express Headquarters in New York
  2. The ‘We Never Forget’ memorial at the Lockheed Martin headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington DC.
An internet search would surely bring up many more touching tributes.

Memorials like these never fail to bring a lump in the throat or a tear to the eye with their breathtaking designs and beautiful, sensitive words. But really, it is the thought, and not the size, that matters! The idea is for employees to pause a moment and remember colleagues who have gone before them. To feel a sense of solidarity with the families and friends the departed souls have left behind.

The replacement
Now, despite the rather disdainful reference earlier, work does indeed have to go on. While it is important to identify and hire a replacement in a timely manner, it is even more important to welcome her/him appropriately. Being referred to as ‘the replacement’ is disconcerting enough for anyone. Finding out that one is a replacement for someone who is no more would give even the best of us an uneasy, morbid sort of feeling.

More to the point, in the minds of her friends and co-workers no one could ever replace Anita! Seeing someone at ‘Anita’s desk’, using ‘Anita’s computer’, doing ‘Anita’s job’ was painful for everyone in the workgroup. It was infinitely more awkward for the person who took over from Anita.

A few simple actions helped ease everyone’s discomfort: Once Anita’s desk was cleared, the furniture was moved around a bit. Anita’s computer, other desk-top equipment, was shared among her workgroup and some of her tasks and responsibilities were reassigned within the workgroup. It worked!

Sensitive handling of such a traumatic event has a positive influence on the company’s brand value, and adds to its reputation for being people friendly. However, this isn’t the time, the place or the context for that discussion. This is another opportunity to demonstrate the real meaning of the ‘human’ in Human Resources. It helps to be prepared if the angel of death is to visit the office. The earnest hope, though, is that he never does.

*Disclaimer: Anita is a fictitious person. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.

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Topics: Culture, Life @ Work

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