Assumptions to avoid with an employee who is grieving a loss

5 min read

What not to say and do when you’re managing a bereaved employee

  • As a manager, an employee in a time of crisis will need your empathy and support.

  • To express care and compassion effectively, avoid making it about you by comparing losses you have experienced to the one they are grieving.

  • Avoid making decisions for them based on your idea of what is best—some people may want to go home, others may need work as a place where they don’t have to think about their loved one’s death.

  • Before you send any emails, make sure to confer with them about what information they want shared with their colleagues.

  • Keep in mind, most people want to talk about the person they loved—so if you never bring them up, you’re only making yourself feel more comfortable.

There may come a time when an employee comes to you and tells you that someone very close to them has passed away. When this happens, as a manager it is your responsibility to shift gears and offer all the support and compassion they need.

This isn’t always an easy task, though. Knowing what to say and what not to say can be daunting, especially if this is the first time you’ve dealt with this kind of situation.

While you should keep in mind that there’s no ideal or perfect response to such news, one way you can handle the situation with grace and empathy is by not assuming anything. Instead, follow your grieving employee’s lead and be there when they need you.

Don’t assume to know what they’re feeling or what’s best

It is natural for someone else’s traumatic loss to remind you of similar situations in your own life. But be careful not to make it about you.

You may have the best intentions in trying to connect by sharing your own experience, or telling them it will be all right. But grief isn’t that tidy.

Saying things like “I know what you’re going through” can create distance because everybody grieves differently—and you diminish their experience by labeling it, instead of simply listening.

The same thing goes for assuming you know what’s best. You may have an employee who’s not ready to take bereavement leave and feels it’s better to be in the office. Because there’s a good chance they may be in shock and unable to process their loss, for them the office might be an oasis where they can solely focus on work for a while.

If that’s the case, it is not helpful to step in and say, ”It’s best if you go home today.“ Instead, work with your employee to come up with bereavement leave that works for them—by delaying their time off, or using individual days sporadically over the coming weeks.

Don’t assume you know what’s OK to share with colleagues

Although one would think that if someone loses someone close to them, the first person they might want to notify would be a family member or a friend, it might end up being you—especially if they are in the office when they get the news.

Make sure to speak with them before they leave for the day, to agree on what information you should email to your colleagues.

Most families appreciate it when others spread the word because it saves them time and energy—but you want to make sure that nothing in the email is a surprise to your bereaved employee. You can let the other employees know that they will be picking up the slack while the grieving employee is on leave. You don’t need to elaborate on the personal details.

Don’t assume they don’t want to talk about it

When your employee returns to work, you may think that any reminder of their loved one would be upsetting.

But it’s OK to ask them how they’re doing and let them open up about what their loved one was like. In fact, for most people, talking about the person they love gives them great satisfaction.

Treating your employee’s loss like the elephant in the room only makes them feel more isolated and alone.

No one ever said talking about death is comfortable, but treating your employee’s loss like the elephant in the room only makes them feel more isolated and alone, and makes workplace interactions more awkward.

Follow their lead and be present for them—there’s nothing upsetting about that.

Don’t assume they’ll grieve on a timeline

It is helpful to think that we do not “get over” grief. We simply move forward with grief. We learn to live with it, and like any learning process, it takes as long as it takes.

Since there is no exact timeline for grief, don’t assume your employee’s grieving will end on a specific date or after a set amount of time.

In addition, don’t assume you understand the intensity of their grief. You don’t know the relationship or the dynamics that were involved, so assuming your employee will be fine in a few weeks because they only lost a cousin—and not a parent or a spouse—is just wrong.

When it comes to matters like death, it’s best to never assume anything. This goes for not just employees, but anyone else in your life. Following your employee’s lead will give you the best insight into how you can support them, without making them uncomfortable or making their transition back to the workplace any harder than it has to be.