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How to Help Employees Through Personal Tragedy

Author: Katie Truesdell Date: June 11, 2014

Because that’s what a great boss does.

Susan P. Luskin is no stranger to employees who have experienced personal tragedy. As the longtime president and owner of Diversified Administration, an eight-person company in Hollywood, Florida, that provides benefits-compliance services to employers, she has witnessed employees grapple with undiagnosed mini-strokes, miscarriages, legal issues, a two-week ICU stay after a fire and the death of parents.

Without a full-time HR employee on staff, Luskin used a professional HR consultant to respond to each situation as it came up. Solutions ranged from helping with disability paperwork and teamwide coverage of the suffering employee’s workload to reminding employees of the business’ policies, which include three days of bereavement leave (parental death) and 18 days of paid time off employees can take for vacation, sick or personal time.

“The smaller the business, the more important each employee is,” Luskin says. “We have to remember that they are people first, and if they are treated well, they will do a good job for you.”

Here are three tips for handling an employee’s personal tragedy.

1. Create a basic policy with room for flexibility.

Before tragedy strikes, small business owners should create a policy for long-term solutions so that there are expectations and guidelines to help both the employee and the business cope.

Options to include in the policies that benefit employees may include:

·      Authorizing additional PTO

·      Restructuring PTO as a lump sum to be taken at employee discretion (rather than separate limits for vacation, sick and personal time)

·      Flexible work arrangements, such as part-time hours, work-from-home options or fill-in help from temporary workers

·      Building an emergency fund to be used in employee crisis situations

To ensure your business operations continue smoothly after a tragedy, Carolyn DeWitt, partner of business consultancy Coherent Counsel in Franklin, Tennessee, suggests creating a basic “hit by a bus” emergency plan. This entails everyone in the company listing a coworker who is knowledgeable about their general duties (or training someone, if need be). If access to systems or facilities is involved in your business, she says, someone else needs to have access to passwords, keys or overrides.

2. Recognize the employee’s grief.

In the wake of tragedy and loss, grief is a natural human response. Confusion, lack of focus, fatigue and decreased awareness of time are common responses to crisis, none of which can be left in the parking lot, says Becky Sansbury, a crisis-recovery speaker and consultant based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Small business owners should not operate as if it’s business as usual for that employee, says Susan Foster, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, executive coach who often works with small business owners. Acknowledge the loss face-to-face, in private and sincerely. Tell him or her that you are there to listen, should he or she need to talk—and then make time in your schedule to do so.

3. Respond with compassion.

A small business owner can go the extra mile by taking action and offering help. Patrick Malone, senior partner of leadership-development company the PAR Group in Tucker, Georgia, says this may include alerting coworkers to the situation so that they can lend support, attending a funeral and encouraging other employees to do the same or offering to provide meals, run errands or make phone calls.

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