Connecting North West business to relevant training, insight, conversation and each other

Coping with a death of a colleague

There are many difficult tasks that HR professionals have to undertake as part of their role but dealing with the death of a much loved colleague has to be one of the most challenging. In some cases, it can be somewhat expected, whilst in others a complete shock. Either way, the news is often devastating for the colleagues left behind and the impact should never be underestimated.

One of the main challenges for the business is considering the role that has been left. This is where a solid succession plan can really help. Making sure key roles in the business are protected by ensuring there is someone able to pick up duties is essential to future proofing the organisation. Not only will it mean the business can continue without major impact operationally, but it will also remove additional stress for what is already a difficult period of time.

Where we have an employee who is suffering from a terminal illness, we have the opportunity to ensure they feel supported during their final months. The initial diagnosis will be traumatic, so making the employee feel assisted is invaluable during this period. You should have a conversation to establish how they wish to manage their diagnosis in order to ascertain their fitness to remain working and regularly review this. Work may be the one constant they can remain in control of, so they may wish to continue working as long as they remain well enough to do so. It is important to remember that it is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their work activities. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. You should ask the employee affected what other support they may also need, such as allowing time off for any hospital appointments or any treatment they may have or are there any changes to their role that are necessary to support them.

It may also be sensible that you seek professional medical advice on how best to support the employee with their diagnosis and determine from them what their ability to work with their particular diagnosis may look like.

Should the employee come to a time where they no longer remain fit to attend work, you would then expect to receive medical evidence in the form of FIT notes as you would with any long-term sickness absence. You should then manage them in line with your long-term sick or terminal illness policy. Alternatively, timescales of the illness may mean you are looking at an ill health capability case. If you can’t temporarily delegate their workload to their colleagues, you may wish to consider an agency worker or offer a temporary contract to cover their role with a view to opening a vacancy in the future? Bearing in mind that transparency and regular communication involving the affected employee is key here.

The employee will likely be offered support through their GP or primary care trust, who will help them put their plans in place. If they have not been offered this support then you can sign post them in the right direction, or if you have an EAP remind them of the support that is available through this.

Other employees who have a terminal illness diagnosis may choose not to return or be unable to return to work at all once they have received their diagnosis, they may resign and matters of this nature should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Should you be faced with the scenario of an employee passing away unexpectedly or suddenly, then this becomes a reactive bereavement situation. This will need urgent attention to contain the rumour mill and to ensure business continuity and support colleagues.  It may best to assign an appropriate person to manage the message of the sudden death, first ensuring the deceased’s family are comfortable with the message being released to the wider business. This type of death in service can be incredibly stressful to cope with as a business due to its acute nature. Suddenly the employee is not there, and they may have passed away in circumstances that are difficult for the business and its employees to cope with, such as suicide or a road traffic accident. Counselling support for their colleagues will also be worth considering in such circumstances.

In any case, where there is a death in service, there will be a human side to navigate through, but also a practical business aspect of what the death actually means for the business. There can be guilt attached to such thoughts of replacing that employee, especially if they were employed in their role for a long length of service, or their role meant they were involved communicating with most of the departments in the business. This can be difficult for the incoming person who eventually takes over that role, so support for them is also important. This can also be an unforeseen opportunity to review the needs of the business and maybe look to streamline those duties and delegate or automate all or part of the deceased’s role.

You should also consider whether within your employment benefits you offer life assurance. Such claims need to be managed sensitively as it involves talking to a recently bereaved next of kin to gain the required information. Their nominated beneficiary may or may not be aware of this benefit and have the awareness it can be received both positively and negatively and usually involves significant amounts of money. There should also be consideration to other legal issues that arise with a bereavement including Wills, Probate and Trusts, which can present with many complications.

A death in service should always be a reminder that whilst we are all employees, we are also human, and that our health and wellbeing can turn on its head with one phone call or event.

If you need any support with implementing any policies or have any questions about anything else referred to in this article, then please contact

Grieving colleagues