Here's a tough one - managing your team through the death of a co-worker. I work for a video game company, full of young, excited vibrant people, and over the last two years I've lost two of my staff. One, 25-year-old with an existing heart condition who came to work in the morning and didn't make it home that night, and a 30-year-old with a brain tumor who faded over a couple months. How do you manage a team through that?

I'm no expert, but I'll share my experience in hopes of generating some discussion. Maybe you can use this if you ever find yourself in this situation...and I hope you never have to use it.

[u]1) Be human.[/u] You can be a manager and still have feelings. You can be a source of guidance to others and still grieve. You can keep the team together and feel sorrow. If you need help - ask your manager and HR.

[u]2) Share information with your team and respect privacy. [/u] In the case of a long term illness, if the person afflicted consents, share what information you have with the team. Don't shield them because you feel they can't handle it - they can. Stick to the facts.

Once you learn that a person on your team passes away, get the entier team together and tell them. If you don't facilitate this communication, word will spread organically and not necessarily accurately. Be the leader and tell people what has happened. No need to get into gory details but (again) stick to the facts and do your best to give everyone the same level of knowledge.

[u]3) Let HR and senior managers know what has happened and what steps you've taken.[/u] HR and Sr. Managers will need to know what's going on. HR may be able to initiate some programs for employee assistance, such as bringing in grief counsellors. If there are any survivor benefits, they can begin that process.

Senior managers will want to be aware of the situation so they can offer help, advice, manage the communication to other departments and have confidence that you are managing the situation.

[u]4) Productivity will suffer for a while and that needs to be okay.[/u] The grief from the death of a team mate will manifest itself in different ways in your team. It's possible that some people might even throw themselves into their work (probably not a healthy long-term response). People's minds will drift. They'll be evaluating what is important in their own lives (and their cubicle probably isn't at the top of the list). Give people time to adjust and cope; they may need to spend more time with friends and family. Hopefully your team is robust enough to weather a storm like this and still meet your client's needs. If not, you may need to share some insight on the mood/productivity of your team with your client.

[u]5) Offer support to the family. [/u] Everyone wants to help and pitch-in, and feels helpless because there is nothing that anyone can do to make the situation any better. Passing a card around the office for people to sign, sending flowers to the family or making a donation to the family's charity of choice are all ways the company can offer support. In one instance, my company planted a tree in memory of one of the staff.

You can also help the family navigate any of the process involved in collecting any survivor benefits offered by the company (who to speak with in HR, what their employee number was, the name of the company insurance package etc...).

You may have never met any of their family before and are unsure what to do, but as Mark's dad said, when you are unsure of what to do "stick out your hand and introduce yourself". Eventually you'll want to meet them to return their personal belonging.

[u]6) Move on - pack up their desk. [/u] Easier said than done. I wouldn't recommend letting a deceased person's desk sit for any more than a day or two before starting to pack it up. That may seem quick and cold, but I think this is another place where the manager needs to show leadership and set the tone that we must move on. I also wouldn't pack the desk up on the first day (because that is 'quick and cold'). If there are other staff that were particularly close to an employee, they may or may not want to help. Do your best to consider their feelings.

I don't recommend doing this in the middle of the work day. It just seems like it would be an awkward distraction in a very somber and stressful environement. I've done it when I first get into work and that seems to be effective without being creepy.

[u]7) Check-in on your staff. [/u] Acknowledge the situation, the awkwardness and their feelings. You can bring it up in their one-on-ones and ask how they are doing. Suggest company and community resources they might use if they are having trouble coping.

[u]8 ) Remember them. [/u] Give your staff time to attend the funeral or memorial serice. You may also get together as a group to remember the deceased. Maybe it is a special staff meeting where people have a chance to share their memories (imagine applying Mark's Dec 2005 "meeting introduction" to this. I haven't tried this, but each person could spend 3 min drawing something about their former co-worker). In times of stess like this, people long to connect with each other. Help them do this.

[u]9)Move on - Replacing the person[/u]
Usually if succession and talent planning has been done, it gets implemented when someone quits or is fired. You can probably implement the same plans here. Duties may need to be temporarily reassigned immediately.
Later, someone new may need to be hired or promotions may even result. If/when you start interviewing or promoting, don't draw attention to the fact that you are interviewing/promoting for the deceased's position. In some cases (e.g. where there is a single specific person in a given unique position) it may be obvious. In other situations (e.g. where there may be regular new hires and promotions) it won't be as obvious.
I'd let a couple weeks pass before brining in someone new or promoting.

[u]10) Be human. [/u]I'm open to advice from others, but I don't believe there is the perfect way to do this. If you mess it up, acknowledge it, figure out what a better approach would have been and don't dwell on your mistake. If you've built up good will with your team, they'll know that you are doing your best in trying circumstances and they'll probably forgive you.


wendii's picture
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I'm so sorry you've leaernt this lesson in such a difficult way, but thankyou for sharing and making it easier on us if we have to go through it.


Mark's picture
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Well said. This may be one of the finest posts I've ever read. It touches on something so fundamental to management, yet that most folks would never dream of addressing. Management is all about people... and people are human, and humans are only alive for a flicker of eternity.

Well done.

Mike A and I have a good friend who passed away recently. Greg Blanchard was young, and was loved by all who knew him. He used to work for Mike, I had coached him, and he worked at the time of his passing for a good friend of Mike's and mine. His firm has a picture on the wall to commemorate him, and Mike commented to me just this week how much it meant to him personally that Greg will always be a part of that place.

Thank you.


nathanbeaudry's picture

Well said, Mike. I too had to go through this a year ago when one of the members of our team was shot and killed in a random act of violence. It was so unexpected and difficult for everyone involved and it becomes really hard to separate your personal feelings about the matter from what you must do as a manager to ensure that the rest of the team can get through the grief as well.

I wish I'd been able to read that post back then when it happened. As wendii said it's a learning experience but a very difficult one.

PierG's picture

I had a similar situation few months ago.
It has been hard and it's still hard.
Thank you for sharing.