How to Handle the Death of a Coworker

death, co worker, grievance

One of the hardest things any company can go through is the death of an coworker or employee. Many people spend over 40 hours per week at their jobs, and sometimes we see our coworkers more than our own families. We often grow close to the people we work with, so when a coworker dies, it can hit us really hard. I have experienced this loss a few times during my HR career, and it never gets easier. But there are things you can do to assist employees and yourself during the grieving and healing process.

How to Share the News of a Coworker’s Death

My mom died when I was 25, and I remember how hard it was to tell others what happened. Not only was I dealing with my own grief, but I had to deal with how hard it was to share the news over and over. Doing so meant I had to pass on my pain to others.

Relaying the news of any death carries this burden. When it comes to doing so in the workplace, take a few moments for yourself before talking to employees. Recognize that you are grieving too and be ready to share that sadness with others. Try to gather as many facts as you can, so that you can pass on what you know. Remember that the family may not want to share a lot of details, so be sensitive to their wishes.

Share the news in person whenever possible. For small businesses, it may be best to call everyone together in a single meeting. If you are at a larger company, consider department meetings. If someone is on vacation or out sick, try to reach them by phone. While it is acceptable to send out a written statement remembering the employee, do so only after everyone has been given the initial news of the death.

Get Professional Help

Grief counselors can talk to groups of employees and can also be available for individual sessions. At one of my past HR jobs, a grief counselor helped employees set up a memory board where they could bring in pictures or other tributes to the deceased employee.

To find a grief counselor, check with local hospice programs, your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and local social service agencies. These places can either provide a grief counselor or refer you to someone who can help.

If you offer an EAP, you can remind employees to call them for referrals to grief counseling as well. Be flexible with allowing time off to attend additional counseling sessions if an employee ends up seeking professional help.

Be Flexible with your Bereavement Policy

Most bereavement policies cover deaths in the immediate family. Consider allowing employees to use some of their bereavement time when a coworker dies. It may be a challenge to close your business so everyone can attend the funeral, but it is the right thing to do. Allowing employees the time to grieve will ultimately help your staff process the death and heal.

Recognize that people grieve differently. Be generous with time off in the days following the death. Of course you still need to keep your business running, but acknowledge that sometimes it is OK to get a report out a couple days late in the wake of an employee’s death.

Other Things to Consider

At some point the deceased’s family may want to collect their loved one’s personal belongings. Some families may request that you pack up the items and send them. Some may want to come take care of it themselves. When a family member comes to collect belongings, be sensitive to their needs and schedule the visit for after hours if necessary. Also, allow the person plenty of time to gather their loved one’s belongings. It will be a very emotional process for them.

It is hard to know how soon to hire a replacement. There is no magic number. Start by shifting duties around to cover the deceased’s workload. Then post the job when you and your staff feel ready.

One of the difficult things about grieving the death of someone is that life keeps moving on. We feel so sad that’s it’s hard to understand how bills still need to be paid, packages need to go out and customers are still calling with questions. Grief can become so consuming that it doesn’t seem to make sense that everything else doesn’t grind to a halt. Allow yourself and your staff time to grieve. Talk to your employees about your grief, and encourage your employees to talk to each other. Doing so will help you and your team heal.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

Reader Interactions


  1. Ellie Davis says

    It’s interesting to know that a grief counselor can help you and your employees with the loss of a co-worker. A friend of my husband died recently, and he is looking for advice to help his co-workers to process it. I will let him know about the benefits of grief counselors to help them during this process.


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