Bereavement and the workplace

Most anyone who enters the workforce thinks about achieving a management position — whether it’s managing a group of people in a department, or managing an entire company. We usually think about being “in charge,” making the decisions, or just having your contributions to the company be acknowledged via a promotion.

But there are many facets to managing people that have nothing to do with your chosen field. One of those is bereavement.

This is addressed the company handbook, which provides details on how leave is allowed. The handbook should be fair, and of course follow any guidelines or regulations that may be in place. But the handbook is just paper; the real question is how should the company treat the people that work for it.

Bereavement is a touchy topic, and it’s multifaceted. Not every situation is the same, and not everyone handles bereavement the same. That’s why outlining the number of days an employee can take off for immediate family, and non-family, is sometimes not enough.

I’m writing about this topic today because my husband’s grandfather just passed away. Thankfully, we live close and were able to visit him while he’s been in the hospital. And attending the services will not require us to travel. So it will be very simple: David and I will attend the services, be close to family, and do what we need to do family-wise this week, and he’s still able to get some work done (he’s actually at work this morning do a jury selection). This is a very straightforward situation involving an immediate family member. He has already talked with his boss to make him aware of the situation (his grandfather had been in the hospital for over a week), and his boss has said that they would cover whatever was needed when David needs to be away from the office.

However, when my mother died, that was a completely different situation. Not only was I living more than 1,000 miles away at the time, I was very young (21), and it was a complete surprise. She had not been in the hospital, she was not ill (to our knowledge), and nothing was pre-arranged. I had to fly from DC to Florida (by myself), make all of the funeral arrangements, host family members who travelled from out of town to attend the funeral, and, to top it all off, try to figure out all of the estate stuff, including hire a lawyer. I had no idea what I was doing. I was overwhelmed, I was dealing with family, and I had just lost my mom. This situation is clearly very different from David’s described above, but most bereavement policies group parents and grandparents in the same category, and give the same amount of time.

This is where people management needs to come in. Thankfully, the company I worked for when my mom passed was (at that time) lead by a managing director who was very understanding. They purchased my plane ticket to get home, and they let me stay in Florida for an extended period of time to take care of things. And, importantly, one of the employees stayed with me while I went back to my apartment to pack, and took me to the airport.

The last thing that someone who has just lost a loved one needs is to be stressed about their job. Yes, the company does need to make sure that its business is not negatively impacted, but ultimately, the people make the company. Managers should always be flexible when it comes to the sensitive area of bereavement leave. Don’t let people take advantage of that, but it will be clear when someone is truly in need of a little bit extra — whether it’s time off, or just encouragement.

So, here are my tips for managers when it comes to bereavement leave:

  1. Know what the handbook says. You have to know what the company’s official policy is.
  2. Ensure that your direct reports are comfortable talking with you about their situation. You don’t need to to pry into the sensitive details, but they should know that they can talk to you if they feel like they need something. This is built over time, and it takes effort on the manager’s part, but it’s crucial.
  3. Trust your instincts when it comes to what the person needs. Again, this is something that is built over time as you build relationships with and get to know your direct reports. If they are truly in need of something “extra” — whether it’s an additional day off or just a simple gesture such as sending flowers — then make the effort to fulfill that need. If they just want to spend a day at the pool, well, you’ll have to deal with that.
  4. Balance the needs of the company with the needs of the person. In times like this, you may need to step in and take on some additional work. This is part of being a servant leader. Be willing to do this so that the business continues even as you let the person take the time they need.
  5. Treat everyone equally, but remember that each person and situation is different. Treating people equally doesn’t have to mean that they get the exact same thing. It means that you are willing to assess their situation, and give them what they need. Yes, this takes more effort, but it’s worth it. And if people know that you are willing to treat them with love, patience, kindness, and gentleness, then they won’t ever feel like you are playing favorites.

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