When higher ed employees die

HR professionals use a variety of approaches to help employees grieve over the loss of a coworker
By: | Issue: February, 2018
January 22, 2018

When 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 spouse 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. 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.”

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.