“The difference in how our employers handled our absences are a perfect case study in how to, or not to treat employees in a time of crisis.” - Erin Spencer


My grandmother passed away in 2019 at the age of 98. Although it wasn’t unexpected based on actuarial tables, death is always a surprise.


Aside from the complications of emotions ranging from grief to relief, we also have the fun of funeral logistics. My Disney touring plans are color-coded. The plans for Grandma’s funeral were almost as complex, but unlike a planned Spring Break trip this time off was not arranged in advance.


My family isn’t large by many standards, but 25 relatives gathered in Cleveland, Ohio from eight states for Grandma’s funeral.


The difference in how our employers handled our absences are a perfect case study in how to, or not to treat employees in a time of crisis. The last thing your employee wants to think about after their mom or grandmother passes is whether or not they’ll be able to take bereavement leave to attend the funeral.


My manager told me to take all the time I needed and let her know if there was anything she could do. She also sent me some Cheryl’s cookies.


My oldest cousin is a teacher in a highly-rated district in a very well-off area of the country. Her Principal asked her why she was even working on the day after she heard the news and she was able to take the entire next week off to travel and acclimate before returning to work.

photo of Erin Spencer Sierra-Cedar and HRExaminer

Erin Spencer, Senior Research Analyst at Sierra-Cedar and HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

In contrast, her sister, a teacher in another part of the country in a less well-off district was not treated as kindly, and expected to be back at work immediately after the funeral. However, her co-workers did send her flowers and a sympathy card.


My sister had three days per her corporate policy, and although she did end up facilitating some meetings while she was traveling she wasn’t unable to attend.


My cousin the nurse had the worst experience in requesting and using leave. Her manager denied her request for leave initially, then expected her to find someone to cover her shifts. She was also required to provide proof in the form of an obituary before taking leave, and then to produce a program from the funeral once she returned. While she was on leave she was also expected to attend a “mandatory” phone meeting that should have been handled in an email.


What are my HR takeaway’s from this experience?

  • Have a corporate bereavement policy in place. Spell out exactly what’s covered and make sure both employees and managers know what’s included and procedures to follow. And then follow through with that policy.
  • When people are on leave, let them be on leave. If your workplace is going to fall apart if an employee is out for three days or a week perhaps take this as an opportunity to discuss contingency plans and cross training. No employee is going to be with your organization forever, how would you handle their workload if they quit tomorrow?
  • Do not make people feel bad for taking time off to spend with family members. Requiring employees to return to work as quickly as possible isn’t going to be good for them (or you) in the long run. Compassion and understanding are important at all times, but especially during times of acute grief.
  • Realize that spouses are family too, logistically I wanted my husband with me to attend my grandma’s funeral. He also needed time off.
  • A day or two of extra time off doesn’t matter in the long run; an employee will always remember how you treated them during a life event and that will either build or destroy loyalty.
  • Have a small budget set aside to mark occasions. Send a ham, basket of fruit, cookies, or flowers. People remember gestures.
  • Above all, be kind. Employees are human beings, not robots. Be kind to one another, with an extra dose of compassion for those dealing with grief or loss.

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