University Business February 2018 - 24

HUMAN RESOURCES

When employees die
HR professionals use a variety of approaches to help employees grieve over the loss of a coworker
By Carol Patton

W

hen an employee unexpectedly passed away at Tulsa
Community College, a lamp
was left on in the office where he died
to honor his memory and help his staff
work through the grieving process.
Eventually, his wife was invited into
his office to say goodbye and turn off
the lamp, says HR Director Jeff Owens.
"Employees knew the spouses came and
closed this chapter for us-gently and
respectfully."
Grief not only consumes people, it
also manifests itself in different behaviors that require varied HR approaches.
Upon hearing of an employee's death,
Owens says HR notifies the individual's
supervisor and suggests a department
meeting so coworkers can express their
emotions and learn how people grieve
differently. The provost also emails a
campuswide announcement, including
information about the school's employee
assistance program.
"Sometimes judgment takes place if
someone isn't overwhelmed with tears,"
he says. "If you duck into an office
quickly to dodge the grieving colleague,
it will be noticed. Let employees know
not to ignore coworkers who are grieving. Convey your condolences and offer
support when needed."
'Major moments'
HR leaders at Kansas State University
reacted last fall when an associate department director collapsed and soon died.

UBmag.me/loss
24 | February 2018

William Johnson, a former Army
chaplain who serves as the school's associate director of employee relations and
engagement, went into "business mode."
"I needed to put my feelings aside,"
he says. "I knew there were a lot of
people hurting and they needed to know
there were resources we could provide."

Grief not only consumes
people, it also manifests
itself in different
behaviors that require
varied HR approaches.
After debriefing the department,
Johnson described the five stages of
grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance-along with some
of the physical or emotional symptoms
workers may feel in the weeks ahead.
"If HR professionals are going to deal
with something like this, they first need
to understand the five stages of the grief
process and that each person processes
grief differently," Johnson says. "Then we
explain what they can do to help assist
people with processing this."
Johnson periodically met with the
department's director to identify people
who were struggling, especially those at
"ground zero." HR later hosted a lunch
for the department, sending a simple
message: "We're thinking about you."
Even three months later, Johnson visited the department to "eyeball" people
who were still mourning the man's loss.
Employees need to be productive, and
grief can turn even stellar employees into
ones who become angry, slack off, miss

deadliness, or withdraw from others,
he says. "Touch base until everyone is
fine." Also, have a counselor on hand for
"major moments" such as when the person's office is being cleaned out.
Share emotions
Although some schools don't support
structured mourning policies, most provide grieving employees with the chance
to share their feelings in a group setting
rather than going right back to work.
There could be a mindset to simply
keep emotions out of the workplace-
that grieving should happen when talking with a counselor, says Dan Larson,
who works with HR on employee matters as interim vice provost for student
affairs at Oregon State University.
"When you have a work environment
where people have close connections or
rely on one another, you need time to
acknowledge when something has happened to that community."
Generally, if normalcy doesn't return
in several weeks, troubled employees
should be encouraged to seek additional
help. They should also be informed that
they must effectively perform their work
duties or take time off.
Campus leaders shouldn't get caught
off guard by grief. The set of emotions
stirred when a co-worker dies "is not
something that should ever catch HR by
surprise," says Larson.
No one escapes the grieving process,
so it's important for HR to find ways to
acknowledge employees' grief and help
them turn off the lamp.
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who
specializes in human resources issues.
www.universitybusiness.com


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