When an employee at a small business dies, the company owner can suddenly be cast into roles that few entrepreneurs ever expect to fill — counsellor, support system, even next of kin.
Whether the death is sudden or follows a long illness, other staffers often struggle with their grief and look to the boss for support and understanding. There are likely to be adjustments in assignments or work stations, and those are likely to bring out more feelings that an owner will be called on to deal with.
And when it's an owner who dies, the emotional and managerial issues increase exponentially.
Joyce Gioia-Herman found her employees looking to her for help when a staffer became ill and then died several months later.
“We needed to do some processing — there's no question,” said Gioia-Herman, owner of The Herman Group, a management consulting firm.
As the weeks and months went by, “there were a lot of times when people would say to me that they missed her, and then it was an opportunity for me as a business leader to sit and process with them. ... I welcomed those times, when we could sit down and talk about who she had been and her contribution to the organization.”
Many business owners might feel like they're not up to helping their employees cope with a co-worker's death. They should consider engaging the services of an employee assistance provider, or EAP, which can send grief counsellors to a worksite and refer employees for private help.
Bonnie Beirne, director of service operations for Administaff Inc., a human resources and staffing firm, said even if owners want to help staffers themselves, it's still a good idea to have EAP services available. An owner might be sympathetic and sensitive, but some employees might want to speak with someone from outside the business.
“Sometimes they need to talk to someone objective,” Beirne said.
No matter who helps employees cope with the situation, owners need to remember the length and intensity of anyone's grieving process is unpredictable, Beirne said, adding, “you need to continue to be sensitive for a period of time.”