Home Business & Industry Planning for the Unthinkable: What Do You Do if a Colleague Dies?

Planning for the Unthinkable: What Do You Do if a Colleague Dies?

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If the unthinkable happens and you and your team are faced with the sudden death of a colleague, as manager, you will be in the uncomfortable position of dealing with staff grief and managing logistics. Grief can affect people in different ways – physical, emotional, and psychological – and you will need to navigate a course that simultaneously looks after your staff and keeps the business running. You will find this task easier if you have already planned as much as possible for this eventuality.

Communication is important

Inform your staff about the death of a colleague with sensitivity.  This is particularly important if a team is small, but regardless of the size of your workforce, always keep in mind that close friendships may have developed. Provide staff with contact details for sources of support.

If possible, speak to people in person, prioritising the deceased colleague’s immediate team.

Be respectful of any limits on information requested by the person’s family.

Consider how you and your team will pass condolences on to the deceased person’s family. Decide if you will organise sending a condolence card and/or flowers from the team or leave it to individuals to pay their respects in their own way, in which case you will need to organise passing on contact details.

Inform staff about funeral arrangements and decide on your preferred arrangements for the day. It may be that you give everyone time off to attend the funeral service or to reflect and mark the day in their own way. Or if that is not possible, perhaps the company can be represented by two or three people at the service. Whatever route you decide to take, it will be easier to implement if you have thought about it in advance. 

Practical aspects

Dealing with clearing the deceased’s colleague’s desk or cubicle can be difficult; there may be triggering reminders such as handwritten notes and personal effects (perhaps a favourite pen or mug). If your company employs a large number of people, it’s likely there will be an HR department to deal with this, but in smaller organisations, it may fall to you to organise this. Be cautious about delegating this task, but it may be something that another colleague takes some comfort from. Also consider if the family of the deceased wants to be involved in some way. 

If the deceased colleague worked remotely, you will need to consider how and when you contact the family regarding such things as business keys, files, and computer equipment. If work is stored in the cloud, then retrieving a work laptop will be less urgent.

But you may need to prove that equipment belongs to your business. Keep, store, and have easy access to receipts and any relevant serial numbers. While you don’t want business equipment to be included in the estate of the deceased, you will need to be mindful of approaching this with sensitivity.

The impact of the sudden death of a colleague on the business itself can be mitigated by safeguards such as sharing calendars and contact lists, but this will vary from business to business. You need to plan ahead to ensure that your customers continue to receive your services and/or products. You should also consider how work will be re-allocated in the event of a member of your team passing away unexpectedly. This may vary from colleague to colleague.

The burden of looking after your staff while keeping the business on track will rest on your shoulders but do remember to include yourself in the mix. Being in crisis management mode may spare you from the initial emotional impact of the loss of a colleague, but grief has a way catching up with you. Make sure your contingency planning includes looking after you.




Jane Robson is the CEO of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit and Ofqual-recognised awarding organisation in England. NALP provides accredited paralegal qualifications through its national centres for aspiring paralegal professionals.

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