3 Great HR responses to death in the workplace

Canada mourned this weekend, as more chilling details emerged about the tragic plane crash in arctic Resolute Bay, and a state funeral was held in Toronto for longtime political stalwart and recently-elected leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, Jack Layton.

While death is ultimately inevitable, it’s rarely welcomed. A community that can respond to tragedy with strength, resilience, and fellowship, is better equipped to move past grief, honour their dead, and work toward a better future.

hr death recovery layton bike chalk

Creating public memorials can be an effective coping mechanism. Flickr/Martin Reis

In a social workplace, grief after losing a colleague is a collective experience. It can cloud thoughts, halt productivity, break relationships, and sap energy. That’s why it’s important for HR to move quickly to acknowledge and mourn the loss, then reclaim spirits and restore energy.

Culture is central to recovering after tragedy. Organizations with weak cultures don’t have the relationships, goodwill, and social resources to rally their people. The extra stress of media attention, or police investigations, can destroy them.

Fortunately (if there’s ever a silver lining in death), if you respond effectively, your team can bond through grief and build a resilient culture. Here are a few manageable ways to do that:

1. Debriefing

For survivors, death can cause anxiety, low self-worth, and social withdrawal. An honest debriefing can squash rumours, eliminate blame, and allow people to open up and talk about how the loss has affected them.

A debriefing should be honest, explain exactly what happened, normalize peoples’ reactions, and offer ways to get professional help. While not a formal form of therapy (which may ultimately be necessary for some people), debriefings can be reassuring, and help people to accept what they cannot change. 

2. Ritual

The loss caused by death is more than just the absence of a person. It can throw off routines, empty spaces, eliminate perspectives, and cast aside projects. Giving people a respectful new ritual helps to fill the void and bring closure, all while showing how important the deceased was to them.

In Canadian politics, Jack Layton was like U.S. politicians John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi rolled into one—but with more charisma. In honour of him and his moustache, people launched memorials in cities across the country, and began to grow trustaches (trust the moustache) in person and on social media—two great examples of coping rituals.

3. Organizational Compassion

Grief is expensive. A 2002 estimate placed its annual cost in U.S. companies at $75 billion. If an organization fails to acknowledge grief in a humane way, employees can become resentful, become distrustful, or feel unwanted. 

But when the leaders of the organization show concern, show compassion, offer help, and share in the collective mourning, the common strengthening of emotional resources can be astronomical. That kind of resilience can be of remarkable financial value

After a rough weekend, it’s hard to say how Layton’s NDP party, or the people of Resolute Bay, will emerge from their latest crises. But if they can debrief, unite in ritual, and show compassion, they just might get stronger because of it.


Have you read the Workplace Tribes interview with former CEO Cameron Hay?


Source: Vivona, B.D., & Ty, R. (2011). “Traumatic death in the workplace: Why should human resource development care?” Advances in Developing Human Resources 13(1). 99–113.

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