Most managers would rather not think about tragedies like the death of a staff member, but forward-thinking ones need to plan for these inevitabilities. While employee assistance programs (EAPs) are often available, managers and human resources personnel must still deal with the emotional distress and shock of such events, as well as how they affect staff on a daily basis personally and professionally.
“It is a manager’s responsibility to deal with difficult situations,” says Carol E. Gilson, vice president of human resources and client services for EMPO. “Employees look to their manager for guidance and direction, so the more prepared a manager can be for any difficult circumstance, the better for everyone. Being prepared could be likened to a fire drill: Practicing for a potential situation while in a calm state of mind.”
When losing a coworker (and often a friend), managers must deal with their own feelings first to help others deal with theirs, says Al Siebert, PhD, director of The Resiliency Center. Siebert speaks at conferences and works with corporations and government agencies on how to thrive under pressure, manage change and develop workforce resiliency.
Siebert teaches managers the difference between having too much sympathy for people in emotional pain, where you feel what they’re feeling; having compassionate empathy for them, where you stay centered but consciously present with the person in pain; and indifference, where you see people distracted by their emotions as a hindrance to getting work done.
“A few moments of compassionate empathy with a worker or group is very emotionally supportive,” says Siebert, author of The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality. “People know the work has to get done. To have their feelings acknowledged lets them refocus more quickly.”
Siebert says those who are less affected become naturally supportive of those most affected. Therefore, it is essential for the manager to be curious about how people are reacting, accurately read each individual and not make assumptions. There is more strength in workgroups and in people who have survived rough experiences than a manager probably realizes.
But the manager must go through the process with everyone and be part of the grieving action, says Siebert. If you don't know how to handle the emotional aspects of the group, let someone who is trained to do so, like a representative from a company EAP or counselor, help out.
“A person can be a good manager of production and operations without having excellent people skills,” says Siebert. “If that's the case, it is important to have another manager who is very good with people handle issues. Do this, and you will make a good team.”
One of the biggest struggles managers face is getting staff focused and back on track in a time of tragedy, says Gilson, who dealt with such a situation herself years ago when a staff member committed suicide at home. “The confusion and uncertainty this event caused among the rest of the very close-knit staff was overwhelming,” she says.
The unfortunate aspect of tragedy is the department and organization must move forward. To do so, Gilson recommends managers:
- Ask staff members to inform you of any in-progress work that may be temporarily affected. Also check on projects your employees may have been working on jointly with the deceased employee.
- Ask staff to assist you with preparing a short-term plan to meet pertinent departmental deadlines and to help contact other employees or clients who would be directly affected.
- Tell staff and other company employees about arrangements made to complete work assigned and future projects.
- Put together a plan to notify clients, vendors and other outside professional colleagues.
- Sensitively determine appropriate handling of the deceased person’s workspace, electronic files, belongings and job responsibilities.
- Allow your staff time to grieve and attend funeral or memorial services.
Siebert recommends letting the group problem-solve the situation and having each person volunteer to pick up specific tasks. A key question a competent manager must ask is, “Am I being paid to solve the problems, or am I being paid to see that the problems get solved?"
Finally, it’s important to know when someone needs more help than you can give. “Encourage those staff [members] who seem to be significantly affected by the loss to seek professional counseling,” says Gilson. “Unless professionally trained, the manager cannot be a counselor; instead, be a caring listener and a resource to suggest professional counseling.”