Pyn • Life Events

Bereavement: How to navigate the death of a direct report

The death of a colleague, especially as a manager, is one of the most difficult situations you might face in your career. Here are the practical steps you should take, along with some tips on how to help yourself and help your team grieve.

What to know first

The death of a direct report is often a huge shock and brings about a swirl of emotions. First, before you do anything, take stock of your personal support system. 

We know this won’t be easy, and your team will be looking to you for your support and leadership. Make sure you have support in place so you can consider how to be there for your team.

This guidance is meant to ease some of your concern about what to do and how to share this news. As a leader of this team there are a few things you’ll need to attend to, but most important is the well-being of your team and yourself.

Who will communicate what

As a manager, you are responsible for communicating with your team, affected colleagues, vendors, other external customers, and HR. You’ll find instructions on how to do that in this Pyn.  If you receive questions from family members, redirect to your HR business partner.

What HR will take care of:

⚠️ Pyn note to HR: Review this list to ensure it is accurate within your organization. 

  • Answering questions from the deceased employee’s family members
  • Payroll, benefits, and life insurance payments including contacting beneficiaries.
  • Notifying the Employee Assistance Program about the passing.
  • Personal Property - making arrangements with the family to return any personal items that were kept at work.
  • Company Property - contacting IT to collect their computer and building access.

What to do immediately as a manager

1. Set up a meeting with your HR business partner

Talk through the guidance in this Pyn and, most importantly, have a space to process what you’re feeling.

2. Clear parts of your calendar

In the first week, you’ll need time to work through interim transitions, rescheduling meetings, and informing internal and external parties.

3. Contact your employee’s family

If your HR business partner and you decide that it’s best for the family to hear from you rather than them, set up a call, video, or in person meeting with your employee’s family. The list below outlines how you might go about this conversation. 

  • First, express your sincere condolences
  • Politely ask their permission to announce the death and what information they feel comfortable sharing. You’ll need to share this news with your team, and respect the wishes of the family in what they would like to communicate. 
  • Ask if you can let staff know about attending funeral arrangements. Some families prefer private services.
  • Ask for a point of contact for future communications who can provide funeral details, when known, and who can respond to questions about the family’s wishes and any needs they may have at that time.
  • Let them know that someone from HR will be in touch in a few days to help explain things like benefits, personal property, and payroll.

Communicate the news to your team

Schedule a team meeting to share the news with your team. It’s possible that some of your team members have already heard the news. Even so, it’s important to notify your team about the death as soon as possible.

In sad situations like these, people will crave support and want to lean on each other and you. Share the message once to the whole team. This way, you get ahead of any speculation or questions and you can begin the grieving process together.

Once you find the right time to meet:

  • Choose a vague subject line like “team meeting” not “employee death.”
  • Let them know this is a required meeting.
  • Invite your HR business partner for additional support and to answer questions.
  • Choose a discreet meeting room or video call as the meeting will be emotional. This is not news to initially communicate over email.

What to say in the meeting

Express that you have some sad news to share. If you’re meeting in person, have tissue on hand for those who need to cry. Be direct and concise but also tactful and sympathetic. Explain that the employee has sadly passed away.

Express how the news has affected you personally and share a few fond memories about the employee, if you’re able.

Be sure to cover:

  • In our social media-fueled world, request to keep the news private for now.
  • What the team should do in the interim until projects have been reassigned. Avoid talking at length about work responsibilities unless it’s necessary.
  • Ideas on how to help the family. It might be a meal, flowers, donation, group card, etc.
  • Who the team should contact if they are contacted by other team members or mutual friends or family.
  • Details of the upcoming funeral if the family is okay with coworkers attending.
  • How to use the Employee Assistance Program for mental health support and accessing resources for grief and loss.
  • Having the time and space to grieve. Give your team the option to take the rest of the day off, or support them in whatever they choose. Provide them with a private place or a shared Zoom room if people wish to support each other after hearing the news. Provide other means of transportation or reimbursement to people who are too shaken up to drive or take public transport.

After the meeting, send follow-up notes and links to references brought up in the meeting. A template you can use is below.

Follow-up note after communicating the death of a colleague to their team

Hi team,

I know this is a very sad time.

Please reach out to me or [insert HR] at any time. We are here for you and I know you will be here for each other as well.

Feel free to take the rest of the day off or if you’d like we have this Zoom room available to connect together.

[if in person, say this: free to head home for the rest of the day or take the day off, or of course, you can stay here. I have booked [insert room] as a private space for us as a team].

We will gather again as a team at the end of the week and share ideas on how we can remember [insert name] and support their family. I will send more details about the funeral arrangements when they are available. Please remember you can contact our EAP resources at [insert link] anytime.

Please take good care.

Share the news with team members who could not make the meeting

While it’s ideal for your entire team to hear the news at the same time, it might be the case that some people were out of the office on leave or not able to attend the meeting for another reason.

The best way to share the news with those who couldn’t make the team meeting is with a video call or phone call.

If you can’t reach the absent employee, send an email asking them to call you. If they are unreachable, arrange to meet with them when they return. This information is best delivered in person or over Zoom whenever possible, as opposed to email.

Schedule a team follow-up in two days to check-in

Continue as needed. Cover the same agenda you did in the meeting with your full team.

Employee Death Announcement Sample Email or Letter

In situations where it may not be possible to meet with all employees at once, you may need to send an email. Some subject line options are: “It is with great sadness…” “Urgent news involving a member of our work family. Please read.”, “Sad News,” or “With Sympathy. Below are templates for small or large teams.

Employee Death Announcement: sample message for a small, close-knit staff or department

Start with the sad message E.g. It is with great personal sadness to share the news of …[first name] passing

Explain the high level cause (if family has given permission) E.g. Our beloved friend and coworker passed away last night as the result of ...

Details on the person's employment E.g. They have been a part of our staff since 2008. Their dedication to the company and ...

Personal memories E.g. On a personal level, we all remember [name] for …

Family sympathy E.g. They will be terribly missed by us and by their partner [name] and kids [name(s)]

Details regarding funeral E.g. We will provide details of the funeral services as soon as they are available.

Employee Death Announcement: sample message for a larger staff or department

Start with the sad message E.g. It is with great personal sadness to share the news of you of the passing of … [first name and surname]

Explain the high level cause (if family has given permission) E.g. Our beloved friend and coworker passed away last night as the result of ...

Details on the person's employment E.g. [First name] was a member of our [department] working out of [location].

If relevant (family details) E.g. [First name] leaves behind their partner/wife/husband (name] and sons/daughters, [names].

Details regarding funeral (if any) E.g. We will provide details of the funeral services as soon as they are available.

You will receive two additional Pyns to support you during this time, one later this week and another in a few weeks. Please contact [NAME] in the meantime with any additional questions.

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