Compassionate bereavement leave policies and procedures provide support to employees when they need it most.

by Kathryn Tyler

“When our children are growing, we watch them kick a ball and wonder, ‘Will they play sports?’ If they learn things quickly, we wonder, ‘What college will they go to?’ We keep envisioning what they will be. Then, suddenly in an 8-week period they go from being perfectly fine to being gone and a whole part of your future just disappears,” says Paul Clendening, who is now president of First Commercial Bank in Overland Park, Kansas. Several years ago, Clendening lost his 16-year-old son, Brandon, to leukemia. Clendening returned to work shortly after his son’s death and continued to be productive at the bank he managed.  “Grief really hit me like a ton of bricks after one year. I thought I was doing fine, but I was on automatic pilot.” By then, “my manager was disinterested. It created a tremendous amount of friction. I quit.”  

Nearly eight million people will be directly affected by death this year and half of them will be in the workplace during the grieving period, according to the American Hospice Foundation, a national organization that serves terminally ill and grieving individuals.  Additionally, more employers are likely to be dealing with end-of-life issues in the future because of the aging of the baby boomers, says Kathi Beauchesne, Ph.D., director of faculty and staff assistance and work/life programs at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.  “Instead of seeing death as an unusual event you may have to face and move on, it’s important to recognize it is a normal part of life and plan how you are going to handle it,” recommends Carol Hoffman, LCSW, university health services’ manager of work/life program development for the University of California, Berkeley.

Despite its common occurrence, most employers are unprepared to handle death. When an employee’s loved one dies, a manager who is normally candid and confident, often suddenly becomes paralyzed. Grief is one of the few topics that remain taboo in the workplace. “Few supervisors are adequately equipped to handle grieving people,” says Clendening. “The problem I hear - and experienced myself - is the awkward distancing from grieving employees supervisors create because of their discomfort with people’s feelings - often positively motivated by fear of hurting the employee more.”

Hoffman agrees. She recently co-chaired a workgroup convened to examine protocol surrounding death at the university. “We discovered supervisors were unprepared for handling such an event and there were great inconsistencies in campus response to deaths. This often caused increased pain to the survivors and affected productivity and commitment to the workplace over the long run.”

Creating a compassionate bereavement policy and supportive, consistent procedures for acknowledging death are crucial in supporting employees during the grief process. As Naomi Naierman, president and CEO of the American Hospice Foundation, puts it, “You can’t expect someone to function after the death of a loved one. We can’t pretend that someone coming back from a tragedy will be able to work.” The key is to find out “what kinds of things can be done, not only to be compassionate, but to ensure a return to previous productivity.”

Time Off
The most basic accommodation employers can make is to offer grieving employees time off from work. The big questions are:  how many days should an employee be excused from work, and should those days be paid or unpaid? If paid, should the days be deducted from the employee’s sick or vacation time?

According to a 1998 SHRM survey report, 9 out of 10 employers grant paid bereavement leave, separate from sick and vacation time. Of those, most give an average of 3.4 days or less. However, experts say this is usually insufficient, especially if the funeral is in another state.

For instance, when manager Michael Campbell’s grandmother died, he and his supervisor at the Michigan television station where he worked disagreed about time off.  “He was mad because I took Thursday, Friday, and Monday off, arguing it wasn’t three consecutive days and I was trying to stretch it into five days off. But my grandmother died on Wednesday night and the funeral was Monday,” says Campbell who has since left the station.

“There is no arbitrary period of time” for the employee to recover from the shock, travel to the funeral, and deal with family affairs, says Naierman. “The word is ‘flexibility.’ But, three days is not enough.  Give people five days and then see if they need to use sick time. Being sick with a physical illness is no more of a reason to give people sick time than being sick of the heart. Negotiate an arrangement on an individual basis.”

Last year, FannieMae, the government-chartered mortgage company based in Washington, DC, increased its paid bereavement leave from three days to five. “We did a survey of our employees regarding their work/life needs, and we heard three days wasn’t enough time,” says Judy Dale, director of health and the work/life center. “It was a relatively easy change to make.” If FannieMae employees need more time, they can tap into their “family sick leave policy, which is five days of sick leave an employee can use for family illnesses.” Both benefits are separate from the employee’s own sick leave and vacation time. Likewise, UC Berkeley staff employees receive thirty days of paid family sick leave.  A new proposal would also allow UC Berkeley employees to apply for emergency loans to cover unpredictable expenses related to death, such as last-minute airplane fare.

The Changing Definition of “Immediate Family”
The next looming question in establishing or updating a bereavement policy is: when are employees eligible to receive it?  Most companies grant paid bereavement leave when a member of the employee’s immediate family dies; however, the term “immediate family” is interpreted differently in almost every company.  Immediate family may include everyone from a spouse, children, stepchildren, parents, and stepparents to grandparents, siblings, in-laws, domestic partners, ex-spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

Compounding the confusion is the increasing number of families that do not fall into the traditional mold. As a result, companies that have not recently reviewed their definition of “immediate family” may find their stipulations are outdated. Last year, Merrill Lynch, a financial services firm in Sommerset, New Jersey, altered its benefits - including the five paid days off granted for bereavement leave - to include domestic partners. “We wanted to recognize the change in family structure,” says Pat Crowley, first vice-president of organizational change and wellness.

Some experts argue it is impossible to define whose deaths warrant paid leave and it should be addressed on an individual basis. “It is not fair to define it. I was much closer to my aunt than my mother,” asserts Naierman. Earl A. Grollman, Ph.D., author of Living When A Loved One Has Died, agrees, “Sometimes friends are closer to you than your immediate family. Make it as general as you can because everybody is different.”

Clendening says, “To us, the definition of ‘immediate family’ is based upon the ‘impact’ of the employee’s loss. For example, the gradual loss of an aging parent over a final illness would not be as impactful to most as the sudden loss of a parent in a car accident. With such a small workforce [45 employees], we have the advantage of not having to put too much in writing. Thus, we can be individualized.”

However, companies with larger workforces may find this individual approach too vague to manage.  FannieMae has solved this problem by listing the relationships that definitely necessitate time off and then including provisions that allow managers to use their discretion. “We have both specific and broad” definitions, says Dale. We include “spouse, domestic partner, parents, stepparents, children, stepchildren, grandparents, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, and any other close relative or close relative of a partner or domestic partner living in the household. If someone had an aunt or close relative who passed away, managers are flexible.”

The bereavement policy at McCormick and Company, Inc., a spice, seasoning, and flavoring company near Baltimore, Maryland, includes sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law and a provision for “any person living in the employee’s household at the time of death.” Explains Anna-Maria Palmer, director of corporate human relations and services, “Our rationale is if you are living with them, you’re close enough to them.”

Thus, to maintain flexibility, a policy may include, in addition to listing the traditional categories of people for which bereavement leave is granted, a sentence that reads: “Bereavement leave may also be granted because of the death of an individual whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”

Abuse Is Virtually Nonexistent
Some companies require employees to produce a copy of the death certificate or funeral program to receive bereavement leave in order to discourage abuse. However, Naierman says, “This policy is difficult to abuse. It’s easier to fake an illness than to fake someone in your immediate family has died. You can expect a minimum amount of abuse.”  She recommends requesting a minimum amount of documentation, such as the name of the person who died, when the person died, and where the person lived.

When asked about suspected abuse, most managers said they were unaware of any, but if confronted with it, they would approach the problem like any other performance issue by focusing on the poor performance or absenteeism. “We don’t ask for any documentation. We trust the employees to use this policy appropriately,” says Crowley. “Develop a policy for the majority of your population,” advises Stephanie Kiefer, vice-president and manager of human resources policy and programs for Merrill Lynch. “Most people who are willing to ask for bereavement leave have experienced a death.” Palmer agrees: “Employees aren’t going to manipulate a policy that surrounds death. This is a serious life occurrence.”

Naierman recommends, “Rather than assume a policy will be abused, start with a more flexible policy and do some follow-up” on how it’s working.  “Employees will appreciate that and feel more loyal. It will contribute to retention.”

The Crucial Roles of HR
HR professionals have two main roles in implementing bereavement leave policies and procedures: to let employees know which resources are available and to help employees communicate with their supervisors following a loss. Research the types of corporate and community resources that are available and put it into a brochure that can be given to grieving employees. Find out what your employee assistance program offers in terms of grief counseling. Seek private therapists who specialize in grief counseling and ask if their fees are covered through your health insurance plan. Become familiar with local clergy, who often have expertise in grief counseling.

“What most people don’t know is local hospices have support programs open to the whole community,” says Naierman. “What happens with grief is you feel suddenly different from everybody else, distant from the rest of the world. The way people get back to connection is to talk to people who have experienced the same thing. It’s also helpful to know what mental health agencies have to offer.” To locate a hospice grief education program in your area, you can call the National Hospice Organization’s Helpline at (800) 658-8898.

Secondly, HR professionals can become a nonthreatening mediator through which the employee and manager can communicate concerns and expectations. “After a tragic loss, the most destructive manifestation of grief upon returning to the workplace is the lack of confidence, fear of job loss, anxiety due to emotional burden, and slow performance,” says Clendening. “That fear and the manager’s awkwardness make it virtually impossible to maintain a strong and open relationship.”

Clendening recommends creating a form for “Grief Counseling” and using it as a guide for meetings between HR, the employee, and the supervisor. The form could include topics to discuss like the manager’s performance expectations and the employee’s needs, such as a temporary assistant or a flexible work schedule on Mondays to attend a support group.

During the first meeting, Clendening suggests, “The first questions to ask are: ‘How are you and your family doing?’ and ‘Do you want to talk about what happened?’ You need to reinforce that it’s OK to talk about it. Give the employee permission. If the employee doesn’t want to tell you, he won’t. But what we have found from other grieving families is an incredible need to tell the story.” Clendening adds, the HR professional and supervisor may learn some important details, such as the employee has spent the last six days in a hospital intensive care unit, not sleeping more than two hours at a time. In this situation, for instance, you would not want the employee operating heavy equipment until he had regained physical health.

“Schedule a follow-up visit thirty to sixty days down the road,” recommends Clendening. “Revisit the employee. ‘How are you? How has work been?’ This creates a nonthreatening forum and helps express support in a corporate way. This triangulated process takes the burden off the supervisor.”

Clendening adds, “We tend to think one-dimensionally about when John or Sally comes back to work. But, the hidden burden managers tend not to be aware of is when an employee loses a parent, sibling, spouse, or child, that changes the dynamics of the family.” This means the employee may be dealing with other people’s grief as well as his own.  Explains Clendening, “The employee may be having a decent morning and his wife calls crying that she can’t get out of the bathroom because she can’t stop sobbing. What are you going to say? ‘See you at five, honey?’ There is much more depth and complexity to the grieving employee” than managers realize. That is why it is especially important to be flexible around an employee’s need for time off and not to place “time limits” on grieving. Clendening says it takes at least two years to work through the grief process after a significant loss. “Resolving grief always takes longer than people would expect,” adds Grollman.

A Lasting Impression
This difficult time is an opportunity for managers and co-workers to demonstrate their compassionate support, teamwork, and professionalism.  The way in which colleagues behave will leave a lasting impression on the bereaved and other staff members. “How a workplace handles a death is what wins or loses employees,” says Hoffman. Unlike other milestones, such as birthdays and weddings, employees remember how deaths were handled. It is a unique situation in which you “can keep an employee’s loyalty or lose it by one action at one time. It’s a critical point. Responding to a death well is an easy way to increase employees feeling good about their employer. At their worst time, the employer is there for them,” says Hoffman.

Palmer agrees, “Offering a generous program for employees going through a personal crisis will buy immeasurable goodwill from that employee in the future. This is an area you need to approach philosophically:  what message do you want to send to employees about how you care about their lives outside of work?”

Grieving employees “are going to be less productive in the short run.  But they will continue to be less productive if their grief remains unresolved,” says Naierman. Adds Hoffman, “Not addressing a death or not addressing it well can be quite detrimental to job satisfaction and productivity.” The way in which you help employees transition back into the workplace is important in retaining them and their contributions to the team.