Death in Service

It’s been a really strange couple of weeks. Since coming back from holiday, we’ve been contacted by two separate clients who unfortunately have had deaths amongst their employees at work. Both employees had been with the business a long time. Both employees, passed away from cancer. This has got me thinking…

I’ve got over 25 years HR and management experience and over the years I’ve had to deal with quite a few ‘deaths in service’. Every organisation will deal with it differently, and no two circumstances surrounding the passing of an employee are the same. It makes it really hard to write ‘rules’, just like writing a will, most business owners do not even want to think about the death of an employee, never mind try to put a policy around it!

My first hope is that, if you are dealing with a bereavement at work, you only ever need to deal with the death of a single employee. Unfortunately, I was working for an organisation which lost a large number of employees in the 9/11 disaster. The fallout of that was absolutely huge and there was a lot of counselling and support required across the business, not only here in the UK but in the US where our parent company was based and where many of the employees were from.

For the same company, we also had to deal with the aftermath of an employee who had committed suicide at work in our distribution centre by throwing themselves off the top of the racking units. That obviously led to a lot of trauma amongst the staff, a police investigation, a health and safety executive investigation, as well as having to deal with the practicalities of supporting a grieving family.

With the removal of the compulsory retirement age, it’s now really difficult for employers to terminate the employment of ageing employees. As a result, I believe that we are going to see an increasing number of deaths in service, and therefore this is something that all employers are going to need to think about.

Having given this some thought, here are my top tips for preparing for, and dealing with, the death of an employee:

Long term sickness with a terminal illness

Communication in this instance is going to be key. In the early stages find out:

  • what support they need
  • if they are well enough to be at work some of the time
  • what reasonable adjustments are required if they are able to do some work
  • who they want their nominated point of contact to be within their family and within the business – it may not be HR or their line manager

Confirm with them what the financial situation will be. If they are off work completely, they may be on company sick pay or statutory sick pay. Confirm things in writing because although this may feel quite formal, it is an emotional time for everyone, memories may get confused over time and the more clarity and certainty you are able to provide, the better.

Preparing for an expected death

This is hard, emotional and often does not have a timeframe attached to it. Rumours can cause upset and uncertainty, so the more you proactively control the situation, the better for the sick employee, the rest of the workforce, you, your business and your end users.

Stay in contact with the appointed people and where appropriate find out if your employee would like visitors from work. At some point they will stop wanting visitors, but in the early stages of a sickness they may welcome colleagues, especially if they’ve been working with them for long periods of time. It’s important to keep those communication channels open, to provide regular updates to staff so that when the end does come it’s not coming as so much of a shock to people.

Everyone is different and will deal with their illness in a different way, be respectful of that and be mindful of not breaching any confidentiality.

Agree with the employee, or their appointed people, what you tell the rest of your workforce. They will usually be concerned and have a lot of questions. They will also want and need to manage the workload of the sick employee. If they know the person is not coming back, then the business can move on to ensure the work is covered and customers are looked after.

If the employee is customer facing, then again it is worth agreeing how much is said to customers. These relationships are often far deeper than managers and business owners realise.

Create an environment in which people know it is ‘ok to not be ok’ with the situation. Ideally, enable your staff to have access to support if they require it. This can often be accessed through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or sometimes through a company medical scheme. Where you have neither of these, make sure you are able to signpost local counselling services and local bereavement services.

Fundraisers and events in support of the sick employee or a charity of their choice can be a great way to enable people to feel that they are doing sometime valuable to help. It is often the sense of helplessness which causes poor mental health issues amongst the ‘survivors’. It will also allow people to talk about their colleague in a positive way.

Dealing with an expected death

Again, being in control of the communication is important. Make sure everyone who needs to know is informed in a timely manner. Ensure that people are given the opportunity to have some down time to process the news. Everyone will deal with the news differently and knowing it is coming is very different to when it actually happens. People who often think they are prepared for such news are frequently shocked at how they actually handle the reality.

Where possible and practical, allow people to attend the funeral, if this is ok with the family.

Do regular check in’s with staff so that they know where to get support if they need it. Again, there is no real timeframe for this. Simple things will trigger memories and may cause an emotional response, even years later. This is ok, normal and should be supported positively.

Dealing with an unexpected death

This is often far harder and the impact on a business can be far more significant. There is no planning, often no handover, remaining staff are left to pick up the pieces while in a highly emotional state.

Ensuring that people know what has happened with as much certainty as possible, as quickly as possible, is going to be important. Remember that rumours are a bad thing as they can lead to inaccurate information, reaching a lot of people which is then often hard to withdraw afterwards.

The support and grieving processes above all still apply, but the difference with an unexpected death is often the shock and immediate disruption, the need for quick interventions and business continuity.

The more you can plan for this eventuality in advance, the better. Examples might include some kind of password vault, multiple people having access to a bank account, clearly documented procedures for all business processes etc.

It’s about being human as well as pragmatic.

Whatever the cause of death, whether it’s expected or not, it’s about understanding what the employee wants, the support they and their family need and the support the rest of your staff need.

In one ‘expected death’ situation that we’ve dealt with recently, the employee was still on payroll and still had commissions and holiday pay due. All of that money still has to be paid. It’s then a question of the organisation making sure they’re speaking to the right people, the right next of kin, and making the arrangements to ensure that the estate of the employee receives the benefits that are due.

It’s really important as a line manager or as a business owner to understand that just because you’re feeling a certain way about the passing of an employee doesn’t mean that the rest of your workforce are. You may be okay with it, they may not be. They may be okay with it, you may not be. Bereavement affects everybody in different ways.


Unfortunately, there are also situations where, as I alluded to, staff commit suicide, either at work or at home, but the ramifications and the impact of that is often one of guilt. Could we have done something better? Could we have done something different? Was it a work related incident that led to the suicide? Does the health and safety executive need to be involved? These are really pragmatic things which have to be taken into consideration at a time where you really don’t want to be thinking about these things because you’re dealing with loss. However close you were to that person, it is still a loss.

Death of the business owner

One of the things that we’re not very good at doing is thinking about our own mortality. What happens if you, as a business owner, were to pass away? What happens to your business? Do you have a will that covers your business? Do you want the business to be sold? Do you want your family to continue with the business? How will the rest of the staff feel? Do you have key man insurance? Unfortunately, it’s a very sad reality, but often within 12 months of a key member of staff passing away, either a business owner or a senior director, a business will fold. It’s really important to have key man insurance, which will enable the organisation to bring in the right levels of support to get the company through that period of time.

Plan for the unexpected and unthinkable

Be a responsible business owner and plan. Think not only about the positives, but the negatives as well:

  • Have business continuity plan which includes the death of an employee and the death of a Director.
  • Where affordable, take out key man insurance to ensure the survival of the business
  • Where practical, offer company sick pay, medical insurance, critical illness insurance and life assurance
  • Where available, offer access to an employee assistance programme
  • Document your business processes so that if someone is absent on a short term, long term or permanent basis, others can continue to operate

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