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Handling the Death of an Employee

The death of an employee can be a shocking, stressful time for a company. However, the way a company handles the death can affect its employees, reputation and can have legal ramifications. Although no one likes to think about the possibility of an employee death, it is vital that your company is prepared.

Plan Ahead

There are many considerations when an employee dies. You need to contact the family, communicate with employees, share the news with media and clients, handle payroll and benefits issues, and situation; the employee’s direct manager or another employee who knew the family may be a good person to communicate the death.

Though there are many other matters to discuss with the family, do not do so during this notification phone call; instead, ask if one family member can be established as your contact person and call that person at a later time to address other issues. However, in this first phone call, do address privacy issues and family welcomes flowers or cards sent directly to them, facilitate this through HR rather than giving employees contact information, to protect the family’s privacy.

Helping Employees and the Company Move Forward

Following the death of an employee, many of your workers will experience grief, anxiety and stress. There are many ways you can help your employees cope while also helping you keep your find ways to continue your business in the absence of the employee lost.

Anticipating these needs will allow your company to handle this challenging period as smoothly as possible; failing to plan will make it more chaotic and difficult for all parties. Create a protocol to handle an employee death, including official procedures for payroll, beneficiary and COBRA issues. The rest of this article discusses important issues that you should be prepared for in the event of an employee death.

Family Considerations

One of your first responsibilities will be to alert the family. This should be done as soon as feasible, to avoid the family hearing through the media or another source. If you are unable to get an official statement from authorities or the hospital, at least notify the family that the employee is seriously injured or ill and where they have been taken. Obviously, extreme sensitivity is important in this preferences for giving news of the death. In many cases, the media will be involved and the family should have a say in how the news is reported and how many details are disclosed. Some may appreciate a public company announcement to pay respects, while others may want fewer details released.

After the initial notification, make contact with the designated family member to discuss funeral arrangements and other issues. Are employees welcome or will it be a private service? Ask about employee condolences and donations – should they be sent to the funeral home, a particular charity or the family itself? If the family business running as smoothly as possible. First of all, be honest with your employees about what happened. If possible, tell the employee’s department and close colleagues first, and try to share the news with everyone in a timely, sensitive manner. If there are rumors or questions, address them openly.

Be prepared for employees’ grief. Offer employees some paid time off to grieve and/or attend the funeral as circumstances permit. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, refer employees there, or consider providing onsite grief counseling. Though these steps may add expense or interruption to your business, it is important both to allow employees time and resources to cope, and to send a message of care and sensitivity from the company. Coach managers in answering questions they may field from employees. In addition, send a reassuring message about the company’s ability to maintain operations, particularly if the deceased was a higher ranking employee or member of senior management.

Immediately decide on short-term plans (and begin thinking about long-term plans) to fulfill the deceased employee’s duties, which may include reallocating resources or hiring a temporary worker. This is where a contingency plan is particularly beneficial for keeping your business running with as little impact as possible.

External people will also need to be contacted. In many cases, the company should contact the media to share what happened and offer condolences (remember to take the family’s privacy requests into consideration with any public statements). Or, the media may have already heard of the story, in which case it is important for the company to make a statement, to avoid speculation, rumors and unwarranted criticism.

Establish a person or department who will handle all communications with the media, and ensure those individuals are properly trained in addressing the situation. In addition, clients, vendors or other business contacts will need to be notified. This should be done in a timely manner, by an individual or team coached in how to spread this news. Notify all other employees to direct external questions and concerns to the designated person or department.

Legal and Business Considerations

If the employee death was work-related, record the incident and report it to your local OSHA office (for employers subject to OSHA). You may have other responsibilities if it is job-related, such as notifying your insurance carrier.

You will need to furnish a final paycheck to the spouse or family, and also handle any benefits issues, such as beneficiaries for retirement plans or life insurance. Make sure your company has procedures in place to handle these items, and follows them consistently. In addition, you will need to complete appropriate COBRA paperwork (or inform the plan administrator of the death) so that dependents and/or beneficiaries can be sent notice of their COBRA continuation coverage rights. In developing a plan to facilitate final paycheck and benefits issues, you may want to consult an attorney to ensure you are meeting your legal obligations to the employee’s family and/or beneficiaries.

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