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Workers and grief: What HR needs to consider when employees suffer loss

Knowing what to do when someone suffers the loss of a loved one isn’t easy, especially in the workplace, where some people are open about personal relationships and others strive for separation between their work and personal lives. But no matter an employee’s thinking, certain situations—particularly a death in the family—make explanations at work necessary. That’s when the human resources professional’s role often goes beyond just implementing company policy. 

Psychotherapist and author Amy Morin recently wrote about her experience being widowed at age 26 in a column on Inc.com in which she noted that her supervisor made her return to work easier by asking her what she wanted from well-meaning coworkers.

“She asked me straight up, ‘Would you prefer people check in with you about your loss or not bring it up in the office?’” Morin wrote. “Allowing me to offer input was the most helpful thing she could have done.” Morin also wrote that returning to work on a Friday instead of a Monday—so she could catch up on email and check in with colleagues before starting her regular work—helped.

Knowing how to help an employee who has suffered loss depends on the personalities involved, but others may find the method Morin’s supervisor chose helpful, too. However, no matter what approach HR takes, company policy needs to be combined with compassion.

In all cases employers should “balance the sensitivity and respect inherent in good human relationships with the professionalism and conciseness called for by the employment relationship,” Joseph C. Pettygrove, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP (Indianapolis), Indiana, says.

“Everyone grieves differently: Some want privacy while others find comfort in talking, and some people go back and forth between those two extremes.” Pettygrove says. “Unfortunately, there is legal risk that must be managed just as there is in any personal discussion with employees … from the simple loss of productivity to the risk of the employee disclosing some sort of legally protected information” such as family medical history implicating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act.

Pettygrove says a heartfelt “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?” should be HR’s response, and if the employee asks for something “that you’re not immediately sure you can give, an equally simple ‘Let me look into it and get back with you’ should give you the opportunity you need to ensure you make the right call.”

Check on time off
KrisAnn Norby-Jahner, an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm in Bismarck, North Dakota, agrees that compassion must be the focus when dealing with an employee’s loss. Then it’s up to HR to advise the employee of any bereavement leave policy the employer has. HR needs to know the policy details, such as how much time off is allowed and whether it’s paid or unpaid. HR also needs to get an understanding of how much time the employee expects to need.

But what if no time off is available? Norby-Jahner says the employer’s options depend on company policy and state laws, which often don’t require bereavement leave or any other paid time off. But “if no time off is available, HR should consider whether they are willing to allow the employee to take unpaid time off,” she says. “Whatever HR decides to do, it needs to be consistent.” She advises looking to written policies and past practices, and “if a new practice needs to be implemented, the employer should form a written policy and follow it moving forward.”

Pettygrove also says helping an employee work out time off is important since most employees expect some form of bereavement leave, either paid or unpaid. “So as a matter of employee morale, I would be very hesitant to say, ‘sorry, nothing’s available to you under our existing policy and we’re not going to make any exceptions.’ The better approach is to have in place a specific bereavement policy, however structured.”

Devising a policy
Bereavement policies vary and “their specifics are usually driven by factors like workforce size and culture, administrative and financial resources, and management’s general philosophy,” Pettygrove says. But he thinks all policies should specify:

  • Whether bereavement time is paid or unpaid;
  • The maximum length of time available “per incident” and, if applicable, “per employee”;
  • The types of relationships, including step- or in-law relationships that qualify for leave (phrases like “immediate family” or “family members residing in the same household” are too vague, Pettygrove says);
  • Notification procedures and requirements; and
  • Any requirements for supporting documentation.

If an employer offers paid bereavement leave benefits, Pettygrove advises defining any limits on payout before and upon separation from employment. Employers also need to check local laws to make sure any limits included in a policy are acceptable.

Pettygrove says employers may benefit from defining when bereavement time can be used, such as within so many weeks or months of death, but he also says to keep in mind the possible need for exceptions since it’s common in some cultures to hold remembrance ceremonies long after a loved one’s death.

“As with most policies, consistent application is critical,” Pettygrove says. “But because of the inherently sensitive nature of the grieving process and the unfortunate variety of tragedies that can cause it, it is particularly important to at least be open to the possibility of well-defined (and properly documented), common-sense exceptions.” For example, an employee who suddenly loses a child may need more leave than the “more typical scenario around which most policies are built,” he says.

Policy trends
Bereavement leave has gotten more high profile in recent months. Earlier this year, Facebook announced a new policy allowing employees up to 20 days of paid leave after an immediate family member’s death and up to 10 days after the death of an extended family member. Pettygrove calls such a policy “uncommonly generous and probably not feasible for many other employers—especially smaller ones for whom any additional leave entitlements can be an unworkable burden.”

But employees have “a nearly universal expectation” of at least some bereavement leave “even though there is no specific law or even rule of thumb governing the specifics,” Pettygrove says. He also points out that bereavement policies “are not a frequent source of disagreement, let alone litigation,” but employers need to be diligent and consistent in following up with employees at some point after bereavement leave.

Grieving employees may trigger separate legal obligations, Pettygrove says. For example, an employee may attribute absences or dips in productivity to the depression or other mental conditions stemming from a loss. Such problems could trigger an obligation under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the ADA, so it’s important for employers to stay up to date on how the employee is doing. “Separate from any specific legal responsibility, a short, kind ‘how are you doing?’ is just the right thing to do,” he says.