The IoD’s Information and Advisory Service (IAS) offers guidance on responding compassionately and professionally, both helping the person affected and managing any impact on the business
If a member of staff suffers a bereavement, it’s important to acknowledge the individual yourself, even if you have an HR team. When offering your condolences, avoid using well-meaning platitudes such as “time heals”, as this can appear insensitive. On the day of their loss, they may be too distressed to take much in, so establish that they do understand they’re not expected to work.
Ask them how they would prefer to be contacted by the business over the coming days. Bereavement is a sensitive matter, so check what details the employee is prepared for you to share with colleagues and, if applicable, clients. If you think any colleagues may want to get in touch with them, ask whether such contact would be welcome. At all times, beware of exerting undue pressure on them to make immediate decisions.
If it’s likely that the death will be reported in the media, consider how you would react if your workplace were to be contacted for an interview.
Over the next few days, make the employee aware of your company’s bereavement policy (if it has one) and their leave options. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, An employee is entitled to “reasonable time off” to deal with emergencies such as the death of a dependant – eg, a partner, child, grandchild, parent or anyone who depends on them for care. What’s “reasonable” will vary from case to case, so you’ll need to agree an appropriate period. You aren’t obliged to pay for this time, but it is good practice.
Also clarify whether there’s any aspect of their job that they’d like to be kept abreast of – or even keep doing – and who they’d prefer as their main work contact. This will help you plan how to manage their workload, which may require reallocating tasks among their team and/or hiring temporary cover.
IAS adviser Caroline Frazer notes that an employee may be affected by the death of someone who isn’t a dependant and that the effects of grief may well be lasting. “Compassionate leave is just the starting point for sensitive management in the longer term,” she says.
Back to work
When the employee returns, hold regular reviews to discuss any adjustments that could aid their smooth reintegration.
“Grief comes with a host of debilitating effects – including anxiety, insomnia and a lack of focus – that can affect their performance, so don’t expect business as usual,” Frazer says.
It can also lead to mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In such cases, an employer may need to make flexible working arrangements or even change the role to mitigate the situation.
Remember that the employee’s teammates may feel concern for their grieving colleague and/or stress at having to take on their work, so ensure that the wider team feels supported too.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employee must not be treated less favourably because of a “protected characteristic”, so be mindful of any religious customs that may reasonably affect a bereaved employee’s leave requirements. Also, if you have to address a decline in the individual’s performance after their return, consider that a new disability – eg, PTSD – may be a contributing factor.
How the IAS can help you
* The Directors’ Advisory Service (DAS) has a specialist adviser who supports directors in cases of employee bereavement. The DAS can give guidance by appointment, either face to face at 116 Pall Mall or over the phone: 020 7451 3188
* The Business Information Service (BIS) is accessible by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone: 020 7451 3100
* The legal helpline can answer quick queries about a vast range of issues: 0870 241 3478*
* The tax helpline can give callers advice on both commercial and personal tax matters: 01455 639110†
* IoD members are entitled to 25 enquiries a year to the BIS; four sessions with a DAS adviser; and 25 calls to both the legal and tax helplines. For further details, visit iod.com/information or email email@example.com
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