The death of an employee creates a delicate emotional situation in which employees and managers must come together to cope with grief in the workplace. How should managers respond to the loss of an employee? How can they provide support for grieving team members? Who is responsible for providing this support and what happens if it's not interpreted as supportive? Recent research on the topic of compassionate management sheds further light on managing grief in the workplace.
Amanda Peticca-Harris Harris is an associate professor in the department of People, Organizations and Society at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Her recent study “Managing Compassionately: Managerial narratives about grief and compassion” explores the issue of compassion in the workplace following the loss of an employee at a prominent restaurant in Toronto, Canada. The research is based on a narrative approach thanks to interviews with two managers as well as Amanda’s own perspective. At the time, Amanda was Director of Operations and People for the restaurant group. Following the unexpected death of a colleague and friend, managers and employees were faced with how to handle suffering in an industry that generally requires staff to ‘leave their problems at the door.’
The grief management process
Amanda’s research highlights three key phases during the grief management process: (1) “Receiving the news”, (2) “The show must go on” and (3) “Contention mounts”. Phase one explains the often muddled and unclear manner in which the company communicated the news of the employee’s death to other employees. Phase two explains the process in which managers attempted to continue work as usual as a means of helping the team move on. Finally, phase three underlines that continuing work as usual resulted in strong negative reactions from employees at the restaurant. “As managers, we knew that it was our job to manage the grieving process. However, knowing how to enact compassionate management was at times ambiguous and unclear,” explains Amanda.
The importance of expressing negative emotions
A fundamental conclusion from Amanda’s research is the requirement that suffering be expressed and heard. “The managers’ narratives highlight the ups and downs of trying to lead a team through suffering without the resources, skills or information needed to know how to respond effectively,” continues Amanda. “Noticing pain following a trigger event is the first step in the compassion process.” Unfortunately, the ability to express, and thus notice suffering is often limited in the workplace as negative emotions are frowned upon (especially in the context of a “service with a smile” restaurant industry). “Within the highly sanitized emotional context of restaurant service, emotions such as grief, sadness, anger or frustration are not part of the acceptable ‘feeling rules’.”
Without the freedom to express negative emotions, Amanda explains that off-site managers were slow to realize the impact that the grieving process had on employees. “The event that informed them of on-site suffering was not the employee’s death but rather the anger and resentment of employees after the fact.” In addition, the relative lack of relationship between off-site managers and on-site team members slowed response times and created a situation in which off-site managers didn’t feel legitimate in their expression of concern or compassion.
Preparing the process
Several guidelines can help managers work through the grieving process with employees. "While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to manage grief in the workplace, there are several recommendations that can provide a foundation for recognizing suffering and demonstrating empathic concern for both managers and team members," adds Amanda.
- Understanding 'feeling rules':
"Managing compassionately requires that managers notice pain in order to respond empathetically. This can be a challenge if managers are off-site or telecommuting. Service industries have the additional challenge of intense emotional labor (i.e., employees must provide 'service with a smile' no matter their inner emotional state). To overcome these challenges, managers should identify the 'feeling rules' that dominate the workplace and try to understand how grief may be expressed. In addition, managers should try to be present, even if they're not normally on-site."
- Reducing uncertainty:
"Uncertainty plays a pivotal role in the compassion process. Managers may attempt to convey compassion, yet misunderstanding can lead team members to feel anger, blame or frustration instead of support. Increasing communication is the only solution during such challenging times."
- Support for middle management:
"A team or location manager is expected to be a leader and know what to do. However, this study highlighted that a manager could have a dual role as both a leader in the team's grief process and a grieving employee. It’s essential that managers in such a situation receive support and acknowledgement from upper management.”
- Allowing for personal time:
"Research suggests that grieving team members may or may not require time away from work. In industries like hospitality, taking unpaid time off may not be a financially viable solution for employees. Management should explore flexible schedules and paid time off to ensure employees have the emotional and financial support they require.