How can HR help workers grapple with the death of a colleague?
It won't be an easy process, one expert told HR Dive, but management can help grieving employees and honor those who've been lost.
When SurveyMonkey's then-CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly in May 2015, the company he left behind faced tremendous grief, Chief People Officer Becky Cantieri recalled. "As an organization of more than 650 people at the time, we suffered a pretty significant loss," she told HR Dive in an interview. "It was an experience that not very many other companies had gone through or could lend any advice on."
Collectively, SurveyMonkey walked a difficult but emotionally honest path as it healed from its trauma. Company leaders agreed quickly that they would share their grief with employees, treating the situation with the utmost transparency, Cantieri, who had been recruited to SurveyMonkey by Goldberg, said. "We addressed employees first thing Monday morning after his Friday passing." she said. "We acknowledged in front of all employees that this was a tremendous loss; that, as a leadership team, we were pretty devastated by the loss, and that we were going to take the time to grieve and take care of each other for a period of time."
And that's just what they did. "The business would continue forward, we were going to do that, but we were going to take care of ourselves first," Cantieri said. "We got through the service. We got through supporting employees and one another. We brought in an on-site employee assistance program. We really just let people go through this cycle of grief. And then we moved onto business as usual."
In Goldberg's passing, SurveyMonkey endured the loss of its chairman of the board and its CEO. As Cantieri noted, SurveyMonkey's was a hardship not many employers experience, and the passing of someone within a company can thrust any workplace into a state of trauma, according to Barbara Barski-Carrow, author of When Trauma Survivors Return to Work.
Defining the terms: grief and trauma
It's likely most working adults are familiar with grief. "Grief represents a particular reaction to an experience you have gone through," Barski-Carrow told HR Dive in an interview. "It could include anger. It could include guilt, despair and sadness over something that you have lost; for example, the loss of a relationship."
Trauma, though related to grief, takes a different form. And for those who suddenly lose a co-worker, trauma can ensue, Barski-Carrow said. Trauma, according to the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, is "a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing." Employees may experience trauma if an employee's death is particularly shocking or gruesome, Barski-Carrow said. She once advised a manager, for example, who needed to help a group of employees recuperate after one of its members suffered a fatal heart attack as he dined with a colleague after work.
Healing in the workplace
In Barski-Carrow's view, leading a group through trauma doesn't entail a process much different from attending to just one traumatized employee. Whether an employee's spouse has died or a team leader has passed away, she recommended managers take a series of steps to ensure workers have the resources they need to cope with trauma, at least in their professional setting.
This won't be an easy process, warned Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "The challenge is, of course, that the company must go on," she said. Not every business will be able to pause and allow employees to grieve; "That can create stress and strain." Though difficult, a path forward can lead to healing, she said.
Participate in social rituals
Leaders can encourage employees to attend their colleague's funeral, if they deem it appropriate, Barski-Carrow said. This can provide a cathartic experience for not only the employees, but also for the deceased person's family and friends.
When the manager of the man who died from a heart attack called his employee's wife upon learning of his death, he was asked to give a eulogy at the funeral, Barski-Carrow wrote in her book. He interviewed staff members who had worked closely with the man and told stories about how he had impacted the office. The man's congregation and family learned things about him and his professional life that they would have never known, she wrote.
It may not be possible for every organization, but employers can give employees paid time off to attend the services of deceased team members to further encourage and potentially enable them to go, Stich said.
Remember the deceased
An employer can remember a deceased employee on its own initiative, too. An organization could name a conference room after the employee or hang a plaque or photo somewhere around the office to commemorate the person, Stich said. "If the workforce, if the organization pulls together and does some of these things collectively, it can help the employees grieve," she said.
Set a welcoming tone
It's up to leaders to create an emotionally safe environment for employees after a traumatic event occurs, Barski-Carrow said. Sometimes, this job falls solely to a manager or a department head. But if a loss has changed an entire workplace, executives may need to take the first step in setting the tone, as Cantieri and her team did following Goldberg's death.
Once leaders have communicated the organization's response to a traumatic event, it's important for others to carry out that mission. Managers can touch base with every employee so that everyone has a chance to voice their concerns and articulate their own emotional state, Barski-Carrow said. This approach will ensure someone will touch base with employees who may not announce their struggles on their own initiative. "I'm an off-the-wall extrovert, so I talk," Barski-Carrow said. "But a lot of introverts don't talk about their feelings."
See those who are struggling
Following Goldberg's death, Cantieri said, SurveyMonkey defined its priorities: honor their departed CEO, heal from their grief, then get back to business. When companies that choose to follow a similar path find themselves in the third step, some employees will have spent enough time healing to return to their normal duties at full speed. But there's a chance other employees will need more time or more assistance.
A manager may notice an employee, or several employees, whose performance has suffered or who seems to be struggling emotionally. This signals it's time to check in, maybe for the second or third time, and possibly find a solution. "What you could do is suggest they go to a training class or send them to a conference to energize them, to let them know you care about them," Barski-Carrow said.
Using an employee assistance program
Outside of these steps, an employee assistance program (EAP) can provide a number of resources and solutions for employees grappling the death of a colleague. "If you have a death of your CEO or colleague and everyone is grieving, the EAP can provide [resources]," Stich told HR Dive in an interview. "I'm speaking from personal experience because this has happened in our workplace. It's very challenging — it's so very challenging."
Some employers build an EAP with in-house staff, but many choose to contract with a provider, according to Stich. She recommended selecting an EAP that offers a wide range of services, including a 24-hour crisis hotline and short-term counseling. Employers will want to make sure the EAP offers multiple delivery channels and access points for their services, too. This will enable remote employees, for example, to connect with counselors in an easy, accessible way, Stich said.
She emphasized the importance of communicating the availability of EAP services to employees. "Help remind them, over and over, of the message: 'We have an EAP and we want you to use it.'"
EAPs can facilitate individual or group counseling, which may benefit traumatized workplaces in particular. "Everyone grieves at a different pace and in a different way. Some people want to be alone in their grief, and that's fine," Stich said. "But being able to talk about it and be together — that idea of collective grieving can ease some of the issues."
This collective grief devastated Cantieri's team at SurveyMonkey after Goldberg's passing, but it gave rise to a resilience that astounded her. "The single biggest [lesson] I've had in my entire time here is about resilience," Cantieri said. "The resilience of an organization, the resilience of a team, and the resilience of individuals who came here specifically to work with him, to continue on regardless of that challenge."
As the company recovered, Cantieri said SurveyMonkey's leadership team came together with unprecedented cohesiveness. In 2016, the team worked with the board to name Zander Lurie as the new CEO. "He was able to help us continue to grieve but, at the same time, move forward as appropriate," Cantieri said. "Out of all the tough moments come great learning and insight, but also great rays of sunshine."
Follow Katie Clarey on Twitter