Coping With the Death of an Employee

When an employee dies, a company must deal with the emotional fallout of the situation while still planning for the viability of the business. Find advice to help your company navigate this difficult time.

By Vivian Wheeler | Photo by Chuck Travers

Jul 2016

Coping With the Death of an Employee

Communicate With Your Employees

It was a Saturday when Jason Smith found out his boss and friend, Robin Melton, the founder of Environmental Works, had died in a plane crash. Through uncertainty concerning the future of the business, he knew it was important to keep the line of communication open with his employees. “You don’t want to say the wrong thing,” Smith says. “You don’t want to say too much, but probably the worst thing that can be done is not saying anything at all.”

Breaking the news of a co-worker’s death is a challenging but vital step. Dr. Karen Scott, the co-founder and director of program development at Lost and Found Grief Counseling (1555 S. Glenstone Ave., 417-865-9998,, a non-profit that specializes in dealing with grief, recommends calling an all-employee meeting before the workday begins to allow employees to ask questions. “Allow them to talk about their feelings of sadness and what your plan is for having some emotional support available for them,” Scott says. 

Communicate With Your Clients

Equally as important as communicating with your employees is communicating with your clients. According to Scott, you should let your clients know as soon as possible about the situation. “First of all, there needs to be a plan so that you can let your customers know [about the death], because depending on what type of business it is, people may suddenly have huge fears,” Scott says. This is especially true if the employee was a key player in the company, such as a president or manager. In this case, consider putting out a press release that relays to the public and clients that there is a plan in place. 

Allow Employees to Attend the Funeral 

Navigating the circumstances around the funeral service can be tricky. “Make sure that anybody who wants to attend the funeral absolutely has access to it,” says Lynette Weatherford, owner of HR Advantage. Or, if that’s not an option, Weatherford recommends holding a small service at the office. 

Address Your Employees’ Emotional Needs

Environmental Works enlisted the help of a grief counselor following Melton’s death. “What I took away from talking to them was, it’s alright to be fearful and to be grieving,” Smith says. “That’s part of the process.” Lost and Found does limited grief counseling but can always recommend a qualified grief counselor.

Another good resource is an Employees Assistance Program (EAP). According to Weatherford, an EAP covers a wide range of issues—everything from legal trouble to grief counseling—and employees can call and ask for help in confidence. EAPs are a minimal cost for employers and can be a benefit for employees. 

Be Sensitive When Replacing the Employee

“One of the most difficult things that happens in business is when the person who dies is replaced,” Scott says. Co-workers have to adjust anytime an employee is replaced, but the situation is complicated by grief. “Give [employees] a chance to work through their grief,” Scott says. “Assess where they are in their grieving process and don’t make that move too quickly. Sometimes it makes more sense to bring in a temporary worker and allow some time to pass.”

Don’t Overlook the Details

In the middle of the emotional turmoil surrounding an employee’s death, it can be hard to think about the nitty-gritty, but there are important considerations to be addressed. Weatherford is a member of the Society of Human Resource Management, and she recommends consulting their death-of-an-employee checklist, which can be found at

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