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DAVID REIMCHE/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When an employee's family member or close friend dies, employers often give them time off work to grieve. But what happens when the person who passes away is a colleague?

Experts say companies need to acknowledge and mark the loss of an employee, regardless of whether the death was sudden or expected. They also need to find appropriate ways to deal with the personal and professional void in the workplace. Finally, employers should monitor the impact on colleagues, giving them time and space to grieve.

"It's a bit of a taboo subject, death and dying, in general, but in the workplace in particular. You're not supposed to be upset at work. But when someone dies at work or away from work and they've been your colleague, that's extremely hard to check at the door," said Jennifer Newman, a Vancouver-based workplace psychologist.

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In most workplaces, managers do not receive advanced training about what to do if an employee dies. Still, Dr. Newman said they should be aware of and understand the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

"Managers need to realize that it takes time [to grieve]," Dr. Newman said. "The office will be reeling for a while."

When a company is made aware of the death of an employee, the immediate response should be to reach out to the family of the deceased and communicate the loss to colleagues. Should the next of kin agree, managers should also keep employees updated on any funeral or memorial services being held, either formal or informal. Colleagues who wish to attend the funeral or memorial service should also be given paid time off to attend, Dr. Newman said.

Employers need to be patient in the days and weeks after the employee's death, not pushing affected colleagues too hard. "Recognize that it's not going to be business as usual," she added.

Companies may respond differently depending on the type of workplace and the circumstances of the employee's death.

Vancouver-based Western Forest Products, for instance, halted production at its mills across British Columbia for at least a day after two employees were shot dead and two wounded at its Nanaimo location on April 30. The company said employees would not lose wages as a result of the shutdown. Employees and their families were also offered grief counselling.

When its officers die on duty, the RCMP honours them with regimental funerals, which are often highly publicized and attended by hundreds of emergency response colleagues from across the country. The latest was held in Moncton, N.B., for three RCMP officers killed in a shooting rampage in June.

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But the regimental funeral isn't the only way the RCMP deals with the death of a colleague, said Gilles Moreau, assistant commissioner and assistant chief human resources officer for the force.

The RCMP also encourages its members to seek psychological counselling, which Mr. Moreau said can be a tough sell in a profession where officers are expected to show little emotion in difficult circumstances.

"We have to be shown to be stronger than everyone else, but we are all human beings," Mr. Moreau said.

Some members have been reluctant to seek help in the past because they worry it will have an impact on their career.

"But we also have to make sure we look after ourselves and make sure that we are mentally healthy," Mr. Moreau said, especially if grief or shock could affect an officer's ability to work on the front lines, where safety is a priority.

The RCMP announced a new mental-health strategy in May to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Companies need to also consider how they will fill the position of the deceased employee, which includes covering for them in the interim. Experts say the move needs to be done sensitively, leaving time for staff to adjust.

Dr. Newman said employers should not rush to post the job or interview candidates. "Attend to staff needs and that will tell you what timing is right for moving on," she said.

Many companies don't have a formal policy governing how to respond to the death of a colleague, but react as they would to any crisis.

That includes having a visible leader to whom employees can turn for information and guidance, said Peter Salusbury, vice-president of people and practice at Edmonton-based engineering and consulting firm Stantec Inc.

"A lot of employees grieve in different ways. Some want to grieve in groups … but a lot want to grieve individually," he said. "The single most important thing is having that visible leadership to guide them."

Last year, a long-term employee at one of Stantec's larger Canadian offices died by suicide outside the office on a weekend.

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Stantec had certain managers communicate news of the death to colleagues and offered services such as one-on-one sessions with grief counsellors and other employees. Stantec was also sensitive about how to treat the deceased colleague's workspace. The company waited several weeks before cleaning out the individual's belongings and, instead of putting someone else in the space, turned it into an informal meeting area.

"The feedback from that has been good. People who were really close to this person use it, and find it comforting," Mr. Salusbury said.

"It's so important for managers and leaders of any organization to take the time, recognize that support is very important, and show some compassion."


If the death happens at the workplace, report the death to human resources and notify the next of kin.

Designate one person to act as the company contact for the family.

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Provide employees access to grief counsellors.

If the family agrees, notify staff of funeral and memorial arrangements.

Allow staff paid time off to attend services.

Show sensitivity when making arrangements to hire a replacement for the deceased.

Talk to the family about the best way and time to return the employee's belongings.

When the death is the result of a workplace injury, the family may be angry with the employer. Speak to the family's chosen representative first.

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Pay a visit to the family of the deceased to offer condolences.

Allow employees time to grieve.

Brenda Bouw

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