The December day started like any other in the office. People focused on their work, preparing for the end of the year review. Orders flooded in as clients spent the last of their annual budgets. Coworkers wandered from cubicle to cubicle, exchanging holiday greetings and planning for the annual party later that week. When his phone rang, CEO Dan Brown expected a small crisis, or a question about next year’s budget.
“This is the state police. Do you know Jane Grey, Robert Jones, Karen Douglas, and Wendy Vimes?”
Dan felt his stomach turn to lead. “Yes, they’re in my marketing department here. They should be on their way home from a trade show in Raleigh. Is there something wrong?”
“Their families wanted me to contact you. Their car was struck by a tractor trailer. They didn’t make it. The families will be in touch about funeral arrangements, but wanted you to break the news to their coworkers.”
“I see. Thank you.” He hung up the phone and stared at the wall. The employees who’d died had been well-liked and good at their jobs. How was he going to tell the others? And how could the firm keep going in the wake of this tragedy?
Facing the Inevitable as a Compassionate Leader
Every leader has to deal with tragedy at some point in their career. You have to figure out how to lead when it feels like you’ve been punched in the stomach, and while your staff is dealing with significant grief. Sometimes, as in the case of Dan Brown, the tragedy cuts close to the bone. At other times, the tragedy is more distant, but casts a pall over the entire office, such as when news breaks of a school or workplace shooting.
Is it possible to bring something positive out of awful events? Yes, but only if you bring a servant’s heart to bear on the problem of grief in the workplace.
Researchers writing in the Harvard Business review conducted a study on how Manhattan employers reacted to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001[1. “Leading in Times of Trauma.” January, 2002. https://hbr.org/2002/01/leading-in-times-of-trauma] . Hardly anyone in the city was untouched by the events, and most offices had someone who had lost a friend or a loved one. However, the degree of loss a company suffered actually had less of an impact than how a company’s executives handled the grief.
In some offices, employees were given time to grieve. Corporate leaders provided a safe space for their employees to process the trauma, grieved publically alongside of their staff, and offered time off for those who needed it. Surprisingly, very few of the employees asked for extra time at home. They preferred to come to work and grieve and heal with their coworkers. As a result, the offices grew more cohesive and productivity actually increased in the wake of the tragedy.
Meanwhile, other firms took a hard line on public grieving. They remained committed to business-as-usual, and leadership did not create a culture that supported expressions of pain, trauma, or grief. The employees reacted by shutting down their own emotions, struggling to “keep it all together” while at work. The stress of having to ignore the trauma actually caused staff to take more sick days and reduced productivity. People felt like they had to hide their emotions from their coworkers and they were sure that corporate leadership didn’t care about their struggles. Turnover increased dramatically in offices that ignored employee trauma.
One thing experts have noticed is that simply being present and grieving with employees is more important than what a leader says in a traumatic situation[2. “Leadership in the time of tragedy.” April 29, 2015. http://sites.psu.edu/global/2015/04/29/leadership-in-the-time-of-tragedy/] . When people have lost family and friends, no words will ease their pain. What they seek is a companion in their grief. In traumatic situations like the one faced by Dan Brown’s firm, a compassionate leader provides comfort simply by admitting his own grief and allowing employees to grieve with him.
The Power of Presence: 4 Steps to Take in a Tragedy
If you’ve ever dealt with a tragic loss in your personal life, you’ve experienced the power of presence. The people who helped you move through grief were probably not the ones who had the most eloquent speeches and hopeful outlooks. They were the people who were there to hold your hand, to bring you a sandwich and a cup of coffee, or who ducked in to help you with mundane tasks that seemed too hard to handle as the world came crashing down around you. When he had to deal with tragedy in his small, close-knit company, Dan Brown remembered the people who had helped him grieve in the past, and vowed to become that sort of person. He followed a number of simple rules that helped his employees cope:
Dan broke the news in person. Some forms of communication aren’t appropriate in a tragic situation. You can’t inform someone of a death or other loss by email, text, or voicemail. Even though it’s uncomfortable, you should break the news in person, or at least in a phone call[3. “10 tips for handling the death of an employee.” January 29, 2012. http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/10-things/10-tips-for-handling-the-death-of-an-employee/] . Your employees need to hear the grief in your voice, and if possible, see it in your face. You don’t need flowery words. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say.” Be present, and let your employees grieve with you.
Dan filled the break room with comfort foods.
There’s a reason why people bring food to a grieving person. It’s a concrete gesture that shows love and it also relieves the grieving of a chore. When someone doesn’t have to worry about how to feed herself, she has more time to work through grief. For the week after his employees’ deaths, Dan made sure the break room had coffee, bagels, sandwiches, and drinks. Employees didn’t need to go out for lunch. They could come together, talk, and share stories about their coworkers. They knew that Dan was supportive of their grieving process. Taking food out of the equation gave them one less thing to worry about, and actually helped them focus on work.
In some environments, grief counselors can also help in dealing with trauma, especially if the tragedy occurred in the workplace. There’s no single formula for supporting a grieving office. Know your staff, listen to their concerns, and meet their needs.
Dan reached out to the families of his lost employees. Reaching out lets the grieving family see how the workplace valued their loved one and lets their coworkers see how you value your employees. Dan focused on concrete acts to help the grieving families: gift cards for take-out, food, and raising funds for scholarships for the children who were still at home.
Dan reached out to the people who’d worked most closely with the dead. Dan Brown’s company lost half of a department in the accident. The remaining employees had to simultaneously deal with their grief and the added workload. To ease their burden, Dan worked in their department for a few weeks, helping out where he could. He worked later at night to keep up with his other duties. Others from the firm followed his example and chipped in. This allowed the people most affected by the tragedy the space they needed to grieve. In the end, working to help grieving coworkers brought everyone at the company closer together.
Going Forward after Tragedy
Dan Brown still gets misty-eyed when he talks about his four employees, but the firm as a whole has moved on in the intervening years. The marketing department is back up to full strength, and every year they send gift baskets to the families of their deceased coworkers. The company sponsors an annual 5K to raise money for charity in the name of the lost employees. People can smile when they remember their coworkers every December.
Meanwhile, Dan’s leadership during the crisis set an example for lower level managers. Compassion and service are the norm when an employee faces a trauma. If an employee experiences a crisis, other members in their department will organize meals for their family or visit them in the hospital. Turnover is low and employee loyalty is high, as everyone sees themselves as part of a family, not just employees. This internal culture has even also overflowed into dealings with clients. Dan’s firm is getting a reputation as a company that you can count on in a crisis, which will empathize with your situation and meet your needs.
As a leader, you can’t avoid tragedy. But by being present, compassionate, and service-oriented, you can help your firm survive and excel in the face of great loss. To master more leadership skills and set your organization on the path to success, attend our Key Leader Development Summit, scheduled for January 2016.