Leading a team through the loss of a co-worker

Howie was the nice kid in our high school class, but not everyone saw him that way. He was shy, wore thick glasses and styled his long hair to hide a substantial part of his face. Students who didn’t know Howie thought of him as a nerd. Some were even mean enough to call him that in public and chastise him in the hallways on the way to class.

As we grew up and moved away from the small town I lived in, I lost contact with Howie after graduation. I learned later through social media that he’d gone on to a series of hospital jobs, working most recently as an aide in an emergency room. Howie reached out to me with a friend request, and we caught up on the intervening years of our lives though pictures and post comments. He was fundamentally the same nice guy I remembered. His horned rimmed glasses were replaced with more fashionable frames. Howie still wore his hair long, but now styled it in a way where his face and bright smile were more visible. As I read his posts, I marveled at the fact that he had somehow escaped the cynicism that often follows years of bullying.

I recently learned that Howie died suddenly just a few days ago. I didn’t stumble across his obituary or get a phone call from a classmate. Instead, I learned about his passing from multiple posts on his Facebook page, posts added by Howie’s coworkers. Picture after picture of his kind smile in a photo with a coworker appeared on Howie’s page, added by people who felt they’d lost more than a colleague. Each of them offered a memory they shared with Howie and included photos with their heads tilted in his direction and their arms around his shoulders. It was clear Howie’s work family was grieving. They’d lost a best friend and a kind soul who made their workday better.

Multiple studies have been conducted on the value of a best friend at work. Research shows that work friends enhance employee engagement, increase innovation and collaboration and foster a sense of belonging among colleagues. In short, best friends at work help us experience wellbeing and a sense of thriving, even as we navigate change and challenge. It’s not difficult then to appreciate how devastating losing a work friend can be.

A leader’s role

The posts from Howie’s colleagues demonstrate the strength of the culture they’ve built in their organization. It’s a culture with a lot of heart at its core, therefore leading the team through this loss requires thoughtful consideration. The way leaders choose to honor Howie’s memory while acknowledging that his workplace friends are grieving will either bolster or destroy the team. Most critical in the days and weeks ahead is for leadership to recognize that he was a strategic asset they may never knew existed.

Here are four steps leaders can take to support a team that has experienced a loss:

1. Acknowledge and celebrate

Beyond a perfunctory company condolence statement, leaders should seek more heartfelt approaches to honor employees who have passed. Begin first by acknowledging the significance of their loss and celebrating their contributions. Just as co-workers posted pictures and stories of their memories of Howie, leaders can organize internal sharing ceremonies that allow colleagues to mourn the death of a beloved friend and begin the healing process. It’s an essential exercise that fosters closure and supports employee mental health. Consider offering access to professionals who can help employees process their grief.

2. Manage workflow

The death of an employee also impacts workflow. Be careful about overburdening other team members with the responsibilities once held by the departed employee. That’s asking colleagues to process the loss of a friend, while managing the stress of a larger workload, at a time when they may be emotionally fragile. Backfill positions as quickly as possible, hire temporary help to fill the void or restructure the role.

3. Lead with compassion

Unlike the loss of a close family member, work colleagues tend to soldier on when they’ve lost a best friend at work. Rarely do they take a bereavement period. As a leader, pay particular attention to the team that’s experienced a loss. Check in with people daily in the first few weeks to assess how they are coping and offer the support they need. Don’t be afraid or unwilling to discuss how they’re feeling. You don’t need to be certified as a therapist to show compassion.

4. Recognize value

While leaders can backfill positions with people skilled to perform a job, replacing the employee who has passed is far from easy. If they’re like my classmate, they brought an energy to the team and may have been the glue that held people together. Going forward, identify the members of your team that you’ve undervalued for the ways in which they contribute to cohesion and the culture. Don’t wait until they’re gone to recognize the important role they play.

This week, find the Howie on your team.

This article was first published in SmartBriefs, June 2023.

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