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Death – why you need to talk about it

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But, death – and the threat of death – is one of the realities of life, and one which businesses need to face up to and be prepared to talk about. I’m not talking about the very rare occurrence where a staff member suddenly dies (although that does happen), I’m talking about when a staff member is affected by sad news of someone close to them. For example, a partner diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I recently discussed with some business acquaintances how to handle a loyal and valued member of staff whose husband had been told he had months left to live. Ouch. Talk about a hot potato of a subject. On the one hand you want to do the right thing for the member of staff, but on the other hand you do still have to support the business. And your clients are still there, regardless of what else is happening.

Handbook

One of the first pieces of advice that came out in the discussion is the importance of a staff handbook.

In this document, you need to set up exactly what level of compassionate or bereavement leave you will give to staff. But if you haven’t put the staff handbook in the contract of employment, then you don’t have to legally follow these procedures – and you have more flexibility. You need to be careful about setting a precedent, however, and with all of these things, get everything written down in writing.

Communication

No one can predict what or how your affected member of staff will feel on any one day. Some days may be good days, other days may be bad days. You don’t know, and more importantly they don’t know. This is why you need to keep talking, and be open with each other about what is going on – and what you and they are worried about.

For example, if they are client facing – will they be able to cope with their current workload? Or is their current workload keeping them sane and helping take their mind off what is going on in their personal life? Are they worried about money, and how they will financial survive going forward?

Flexibility

Before you can talk to a member of staff, know exactly what you can or cannot offer them to help through this difficult time in their lives. Remember to ask them what they need, rather than assuming that you know what they need.

Counselling is normally a very cost effective option – which will always cost less than recruiting in another member of staff. Are you able to bring forward their holiday, so they can still get paid, but spend more time away from the job? Or you able to offer a period of unpaid leave? Can you leave their job open for them, if and when they want to come back? Are you able to offer them part-time working?

Colleagues

Most people forget about the impact on the rest of the staff. All too often we focus our efforts on the affected member of staff, but everyone feels a range of emotions and shock when they hear about someone they know who has been told they are dying.

Plus, they will be wondering how the work will get done. They will also be looking to see how sensitively and compassionately the firm’s partners and management in general handle the situation. After all, it could be them next.

As long as you have the permission of the affected member of staff, the more you can get information out in the open, the better. After all, the team will need to work together to support the affected member of staff, and will probably want to know why they seem somewhat pre-occupied.

One of the best ways to help staff deal with the news is to give them an avenue to create something positive out of the situation. For example, hosting a Macmillan coffee morning, going on a sponsored run, etc.

How would you deal with a member of staff who has been told her partner has months left to live and is dying with terminal cancer? Have you ever thought how you would manage the situation?

Heather Townsend, Britain’s queen of networking, is the founder of The Efficiency Coach, a company that helps professionals achieve better business results for less effort. Follow her Joined Up Networking blog for more useful tips and tricks. She has just been commissioned to write the FT Guide to Business Networking.

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