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Podcast: How to communicate the death of an employee

Today’s podcast episode comes with a trigger warning as I’ve addressed the sensitive topic of communicating an employee’s death.

Towards the end of the episode I discuss suicide and will be pointing you towards resources and guidance.

Come back to this episode if you’re not feeling in a safe enough space to listen to it today.

But please know it’s here should you find yourself in the situation where you need to communicate the death of an employee.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean or listen via this article.

How to communicate the death of an employee

About Candid Comms

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

Do let me know what you think of this episode and don’t forget to rate, review and follow, so other Comms pros can benefit too.

Further reading and resources mentioned in this episode:

Thank you CIPR Inside for sharing these links with me:

Crisis management in the event of a suicide

Transcript of this week’s episode

You’re listening to the Candid Comms Podcast with Rachel Miller. Tune in for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.

Hello and welcome to the show. Today’s episode is a sensitive one and therefore it comes with a trigger warning. The topic up for discussion today is how to communicate the death of an employee. And towards the end of this episode, I’ll be pointing you towards resources to support you. And in particular, I will be pointing you towards resources to help you if you are communicating about suicide. So I wanted to give you a heads up right at the very start of this episode to encourage you to make sure that you are in a safe place to listen to this episode. If you don’t feel like now is the right sort of time to listen, then just walk away from this episode, park it and know that it’s here should you be in this situation where you need to communicate the death of an employee.

Now, I won’t be talking about suicide for the whole of this episode, but because it is in here and it is such a sensitive topic, I want to make sure that I’m looking out for you and looking after you. So please do feel free to make the right decision for you and know this episode is here in future.

I’ve been working in this field for 23 years and throughout the course of my career, I’ve had to communicate death in various guises. First as a journalist, then while in house, and now as a comms consultant in an advisory capacity. And I’ll be really candid with you comms friends, because this is the Candid Comms Podcast. It doesn’t really get any easier. However, my intention for you is that you have advice and guidance from this episode today to help you feel prepared. It may well be that you’ve been working in internal comms for a long time and you’ve been responsible for helping to communicate the death of colleagues. I hope that you find this episode helpful to help you reflect back and plan forward for any future situations you may find yourself in.

It may well be you are brand new to the field of comms or been working in it for a while and you haven’t had to communicate the death of an employee. If that’s you, I hope this episode helps you plan ahead and helps you think. This thinking time is really helpful, I find, because when you are in a situation like having to communicate the death of an employee, what you don’t really have is the thinking time. So my intention today is to give you the space and the opportunity to think through what have we done in the past or what would I do in the future? So therefore, if you do find yourself in the situation of needing to communicate, you’ve already had the opportunity to think some of these things through.

Now, it’s important to note you can’t have a perfect script. I can’t say to you today, here is the blueprint that you need because you always need, as with most internal comms, you always need to adapt your plan or messaging to suit the circumstance. So I can’t give you a perfect script as that wouldn’t be appropriate.

I’m going to start us with what we need to know. And what you need to know is what your internal policies and procedures are. So that includes things like protocols, roles and responsibilities for communicating the death of an employee. You need to know that. Check that today. Build this into your crisis communication planning as well. Trust me, your future self will thank you for it.

I’m going to share a quote with you, which is one of my favourites, and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it on this podcast before. And it’s from the brilliant Maya Angelou who said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Now why am I sharing that today? Well, because when you are in a situation where you are having to communicate the death of a colleague, we need to make sure that we don’t just focus on what we are saying and what we are doing, but how our employees feel. In the short term, they will remember what you said and what you did. But in the longer term, how you made them feel is what resonates. So our intention with this type of internal communication should be for our employees to feel supported in their grief or shock, able to express their emotions and be appropriately informed. Now, appropriately informed is a bit of a strange term, so I’m going to come back to that later in this episode.

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Years from now, some employees will remember what you wrote and the actions you took, but how you made them feel will stay with them. For example, I can acutely remember how I felt when one of my classmates died very unexpectedly from meningitis. We were 13 years old, and I remember how my teachers made me feel as an individual, as part of my friendship group and part of my class and year. And what stays with me now nearly 30 years on is the personalised, kind and gentle communication. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the actions and particularly how they made me feel. For us as professional communicators, getting the wording right is as important as the actions and feelings in situations involving colleagues’ deaths. What you say, how you say, and the order in which it’s said are critical considerations. Why? Because they can impact how your colleagues feel today and years from now.

If you check out the show notes at allthingsic.com/podcast and the show notes for this episode, you will find some guides that I’ll include for you. Now, there’s some advice in there from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations inside group, CIPR Inside, and they talk about the need to make sure before you do any communications plan or any communications process when it comes to communicating the death of a colleague, to make sure that you are working with your HR colleagues. HR should be leading or your people team should be leading on this process with communications supporting. So all decisions should be made in collaboration with the relevant departments and bearing in mind the circumstance, and depending on what the circumstance might be, that might be other parties involved too. If it’s a safety incident for example, then I imagine it won’t just be HR and communication. You might have facilities and your health and safety colleagues involved as well.

So the key thing for us to know today is thinking through how to create your response if there is a death of a colleague inside your organisation. Now, verification is utterly critical. In other words, we need to make sure we are establishing the facts. So you need to make sure that’s coupled with permission from your employee’s family. They go together. In my experience, comms and HR teams often know the news fairly swiftly as the family can get in touch. And it’s important that you liaise with the employee’s family to make sure you don’t share the news internally before their wider family has been informed. That’s so important. Let me repeat that. Make sure you liaise with the employee’s family to ensure you don’t share the news internally inside your organisation before their wider family has been informed.

So you need to make sure you have a clear picture in terms of what has happened. Sometimes details will emerge over time, but you need to make sure of the facts. Some of these you will communicate, others will be for your own context, which will help you shape what or when you communicate. I’m going to give you a checklist. When you are trying to verify information, here are some things to bear in mind. You need to know the employee’s name. Double check the spelling. Were they known as another name inside your organisation? And it also could be helpful here to check their pronouns as well. What was their job title? How long had they been with the company for? Who was their line manager? How they died? And when? And the details you give will depend on the circumstance. So again, it’s important to liaise with the relevant parties and then maybe the funeral date and wishes.

So again, to reiterate from that list, some you will communicate, others will be for your own context, which will help you shape what or when you communicate, particularly how they died and the funeral date. I encourage you to maintain the family’s privacy and keep the lines of communication open between you and them. And again, comms friends, this is all about us liaising with our HR colleagues. You need to determine the timing together. So you may want to talk about external communication such as media handling and external parties, perhaps clients and suppliers at this stage too, both in terms of what to say and the details. So for example, sharing a photograph of the colleague or not. I know it feels really early to do this, but I’ve found knowing this decision upfront to be really useful.

Maintaining the family’s privacy is critical. So be really mindful of the details you are sharing inside your organisation. If they were a really private person, for example, it may not be appropriate to suddenly start sharing details about their partner, or their children or their home life. Be guided by their family and their line manager. My advice, keep details short and factual. This is what I meant by appropriately informed earlier. You need to establish the facts to guide what you say and how you say it, but you’ll make choices about what to share so employees are also appropriately informed. Sometimes I’ve offered families the opportunity to release a short statement that I’ve then circulated internally. Some families do want to do that, and they say yes immediately. Other times they say no completely outright. Other times I’ve had families say no and then come back a short while later to change their minds and say yes. The choice is utterly up to them. It’s their choice to make. So please, let’s make sure that we respect it.

My advice in this situation is keep those lines of communication open. If they change their mind and actually they want to do their own personal tribute and share something inside the organisation, it’s helpful to know that. So having that respectful distance, but maintaining lines of communication, they know how to get hold of you if they change their mind. Let’s focus on what we need to do.

The first thing you needed to know were your policies. What were your procedures internally? And also who your HR business partners are? So who is the responsible person or people inside your organisation who if somebody dies, it’s therefore from an HR perspective, it’s part of their role and part of that job would be then to inform you? So what we need to do, I would say, is build relationships with our HR colleagues. Now, you may be reporting into the same team already. It may be that you are part of your HR or people team, or perhaps you have a business partner in relationship. It doesn’t matter what the hierarchy says or what your org chart says. I believe as professional communicators, it is our business to know our business, and that includes knowing our HR and people colleagues.

So what we need to do is create good working relationships with them. Because when you find yourself in a situation like this, when you’re needing to communicate the death of a colleague already establishing rapport, and trust, and credibility with your respective colleagues is super helpful and super important, particularly the trust I find. So what you need to do is really understand who is out there in terms of the decision makers or the people who can help you shape what is shared internally. And again, remember this is HR normally leading on this and the comms is supporting. But what you can do is help them do the thinking.

What you can do is create resources and perhaps timelines for example. So you are having a really clear pattern in terms of when there is an employee death, what happens? What is the cadence of the communication? What’s the rhythm? What happens next? What are the stages? I’ve included an example in the show notes for you at allthingsic.com/podcast and the show notes for this episode. And it includes advice from CIPR Inside. In that advice, in that guide that they’ve shared, it says, “Initial contact with the family or next of kin is likely to be instigated either by them or by the colleague’s line manager on being informed of the news.”

Further reading: How to communicate the death of an employee.

CIPR timeline

And as a guide, that first call should be an opportunity for the line manager to express condolences both personal and on behalf of the company. It should be used to agree onward communications about the colleagues’ death. So that’s details such as the cause of death, whether they want it to be shared or not, the mechanism for communicating news with colleagues and third parties. Perhaps it’s the sign posting of funeral arrangements if appropriate. The conversation with the initial conversation we’re talking about here with the family on next of kin should be used as an opportunity to agree to any other remembrance activity which may have been proposed at a very early stage. So that’s things like a condolences book or a fundraising page, for example. Normally that call is also used to arrange the formal call about administrative steps and that will follow on in due course.

Now there’s quite a lot to cover there in that first call. So if those steps aren’t achievable in that call, then a second call following a suitable lapse of time should take place. Once the line manager has spoken to the family, they should notify HR immediately so they can instigate the relevant processes or procedures. Now from a comms perspective, I think what’s really, really important for us to do comms friends, is being really mindful about who is told when. So make sure the order is clear in your mind. For example, their manager, their immediate team, then the wider team. You may choose to inform the whole company, but if you are a global organisation, you might not choose to do that. Analyse every situation and choose what’s appropriate. And don’t forget, point your colleagues towards resources and people who can support and help them.

For example, you might have an employee assistance programme, EAP. Make sure you inform your EAP provider so they can support your people. That is so often missed when we are head down, when we’re in this sort of situation, or particularly if we are communicating in a crisis situation, we can often forget to give our EAP the heads up. And I like to do that whenever I can because if I know that I’m encouraging employees inside an organisation to contact the employee assistance programme, what I don’t want them to do is feel like they’ve not been informed, and therefore they suddenly have an influx of calls, and perhaps they can’t support our colleagues in the way that we’re making it sound like they could. So try and think around the situation and inform your EAP.

I’m going to share some links in the show notes for you, including a bereavement guide from Mind, guidance from BEN, and also there’s a guide from cruse.org.uk. And Matt Clements, who’s a senior marketing and comms manager shared a guide with me when I wrote a blog post in 2020 about communicating the death of employees. And it was about how to support bereaved staff as they cope with the death of a colleague, which is a really good read. So Matt, thank you for sharing that. Matt’s from the Rail Safety and Standards Board, so I’ll share that as well in the show notes.

I’m going to add one more thing into this do section before we take a short break, and it’s something I want you to be mindful of and it’s thinking around the funeral details. Details of the funeral are the privilege of the family. They can choose not to share them with the organisation at all. It’s entirely up to them. Sometimes families may want to make it known or share details of a certain charity or a cause that they’re raising money for. Again, keep the lines of communication open. If you take one thing away from this episode today is the urge from me to you, the encouragement from me to you to keep the lines of communication open between the organisation and the colleague’s family or next of kin. We are going to take a short break and when we come back, I will leave you with something to think about. See you in a moment.

Would you like to learn more about internal communication and would you like to study it at your own pace? If so, I’ve got the answer. Head over to the All Things IC Online Masterclasses. There is a whole range of courses for you to choose from, how to be an internal communicator, to how to write an internal communication strategy, how to write a 90 day plan, how to be a strategic internal communicator, and even how to be a comms consultant. And because you are a listener of the Candid Comms Podcast, you can save 10%. So head over to allthingsic.com.thinkific.com to explore all the options that are available to you. And don’t forget to use the code, Candid Comms at the checkout to remove 10%. And I hope to see you inside one of those Masterclasses very soon.

Welcome back. In the final part of today’s episode, which is focused on communicating the death of an employee, I want you to think about the circumstances of death and the details around your colleague’s passing. We need to be mindful of language, so consider appropriate phrases to use. For example, the passing of may be preferable to untimely death. This is a really super emotional time, so be mindful of the language choice. In October, 2021, I wrote an article on the All Things IC blog where I referenced a brand new guide that had just been published by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, CIPR. And it was a guide to communicating suicide. And I encourage you to check this out, I’ll link to it in the show notes. But what I found really helpful from the guidance was the section around language.

Now, language. I already referenced this right at the start of this conversation today, language is really important and it’s a very emotional time, and the words that we use are important. So in this guide from CIPR for example, they make recommendations. They encourage you to say suicide and not to say committed suicide. They recommend saying, “Taken their own life” rather than saying, “Suicide victim.” And there’s a whole list of words and phrases, ones to avoid and ones that it recommends using.

So I’ll include all the information in the show notes, allthingsic.com/podcast and the show notes for this episode.

Further reading and resources mentioned in this episode:

Thank you CIPR Inside for sharing these links with me:

Within that blog post as well, I reference some other advice and guidance that I’m aware of, particularly professional organisations who can support colleagues when they’ve been impacted by suicide. I’ll also include some resources that I’m aware of, such as the Media Handling Guide and media guidelines from the Samaritans organisation who are an amazing organisation here in the UK. So I will put all of those resources in the show notes for you if you are communicating suicide inside your organisation.

Crisis management in the event of a suicide

The final thing that I want you to think about is memorials. Now, some organisations choose to have a memorial for the person who’s died. This can vary from something virtual to something physical, like a guest book, for example, for people to sign or maybe a moment of silence for quiet reflection in the next town hall.

Now, considerations for longer lasting initiatives could include something like a recognition reward in their honour, or maybe personifying a value that that person was known for. If I go back home, I live in West London. If I go back home to East London, to Essex, I still stop by my old school about once a year and I lay flowers at the foot of my friend’s memorial tree. My friend, who I mentioned earlier who died when we were 13. The school provided us with a place to mourn as friends, which remains a comfort today. I feel like her grave is the place where her family go to, but for us as a group of friends, it gives me goosebumps talking about it. But it’s really important, that memorial is really important for me and for her friends. It’s something that we go to and it’s been provided for by our school.

And in honesty, people who are in the school today, 30 years on that, tree now is beautiful and it’s really bloomed it. It’s a cherry blossom tree and it blossoms in May, which is the time of year that she died. And we chose it as a group. And that’s really important for me so think about that. Is there an opportunity, is it appropriate to have something in place as a memorial? Other things to think about, and this isn’t an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but some other things to perhaps consider are marking anniversaries in the future, being really mindful of the anniversary of their death. The outcome of any investigation, so if it is a criminal offence that happened, or an incident that took place that caused the death of your colleague, be really mindful of the outcome of any investigation and therefore the potential renewed interest internally and potentially externally, HR to liaise with the family or next of kin around company, collateral and personal belongings.

And for us as internal communicators, this one is often missed. Making sure you remove the photograph of that colleague from any internal or external communication. If they happen to be in a photograph that you use on your career site, for example, make sure you are aware of that. You don’t want to cause any more hurt for the family. So really being clear and mindful, where do we have images of that colleague? What do we then need to replace?

The final point in terms of things to think about is when to remove memorials or deciding what will remain as a permanent feature. So once you’ve gone through all of this process, when will you remove flowers, for example, or tributes, or when will the condones book be closed? When will you make a decision to mark the end?

Now, this was a really tough episode. I found it quite emotional to record. I hope you find it really helpful to help you think through what would we do inside our organisation if a colleague died? I hope it’s given you some comfort today in thinking, you know what? We did do lots of those things, if you’ve been in this situation, or it’s given you some confidence to think, if I face this situation, I know what I would do. Maybe you’ve got an opportunity now to reflect and maybe capture some thoughts and maybe make a note. So if you find yourself in a situation where you are needing to communicate the death of a colleague, you have some thinking time in place already. You know what you would do.

As ever, I love hearing from you. Do let me know what you are taking away from this episode. You can find me on Twitter at All Things IC, look me up on Instagram, Rachel All Things IC. I’m on LinkedIn as Rachel Miller or find me via the website, allthingsic.com/contact. I’m off to have a very big cup of tea and I recommend do you do the same. Need a bit of self-care after this episode. Go well comms friends, and remember what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 8 November 2022.

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