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The HR Doctor Is
A much-loved colleague in county government recently passed away after
a great struggle with pancreatic cancer. This woman was a leader, had a
great sense of humor and was very highly respected by hundreds of people.
We are not over the shock. What can we do?
Thank you for bringing out in the open a problem of concern to every
county official - the death of someone we know and respect as a
In any diverse work force, it is likely, at some point, a colleague
will die of natural causes or as a result of an accident. A proactive
county HR program will not only anticipate this situation, but be ready to
respond quickly and with great sensitivity.
The great tragedy of the death of co-worker must not go by with silence
from county managers because silence can be taken as insensitivity and
lack of caring. Here is the HR doctor's "prescription" :
1. Benefit planning. A "one size fits all" benefit program does
not meet the needs of today's or tomorrow's work force. It may also not
produce the greatest possible return on investment in county and employee
dollars. Try an approach such as a flexible benefit program with a variety
of benefit choices which will be attractive to people at different life
In the current example, develop benefits which can help a seriously ill
person and the family of such persons. The best time is before a person
with a serious illness passes away. Examples include:
A. A sick leave donation program or bank from which critically ill
employees - not chronic "day here and day there" sick leave users - may
get extra help when they need it most. Such a plan may be administered by
Also consider a Compassionate Annual Leave Donation Program available
when the child or the spouse of an employee is critically ill. Such
programs cost the organization a relatively small amount of additional
leave time, however, they return advantages to the organization as a
visible demonstration of compassion and caring. Include in the benefit
plan a long-term disability program, as well as life insurance.
Consider also a "reverse" life insurance option or a "viatical" program
in which a person with a life-threatening illness may receive cash now for
a portion of the value of their insurance benefits to be used to pay
medical bills, go on that dream cruise or prepay for funeral
2. Benefit advocacy. The HR program should assign a staff member
to be available to the critically ill employee and family members. This
person should respond quickly and with priority to questions about benefit
availability and access, and function as an ombudsman to help resolve
Not only will the affected employee and family members be grateful, but
scores of other employees will know that the county was "there for their
colleague" at a most difficult time.
3. When a colleague dies, the organization must respond. The
response take two forms. First, for the family members, a specific
designated contact person - it could be the benefits manager or the HR
director - should be available to the family to answer all questions about
benefits that the employee had, arrange for the pick up of personal
effects from the employee's office, answer questions for family members,
and in general be an aide at a very difficult time.
Secondly, managers need to understand that the death of a co-worker has
profound effects on colleagues at work. The HR Doctor is a tremendous fan
of an active Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Please contact the HR
Doctor for advice and help in setting one up if your county does not
already have one.
This is not a time to be a "bean-counting bureaucrat." A manager or
director needs to be sensitive to the delicate feelings of employees at
this time and understand requests by close friends for time off or other
I am aware that in the case of the death described in this letter to
the HR Doctor, the county organized a large memorial service at a public
facility and named an office building after the employee. This is a time
for elected officials to show their leadership and sensitivity as
Donations to the employee's favorite charity or other memorials may be
appropriate. On the other hand, the family may wish respect for its
privacy and may prefer a limited role in such memorials.
If the colleague's death was the result of an act of workplace
violence, there are other responses which would be appropriate, including
cooperation with law enforcement, enhanced security, employee interviews
and other steps for which an Employee Assistance Program must be prepared
to respond immediately.
These elements of the HR Doctor's prescription will help the grieving
process for the employee's family and co-workers. They will add a legacy
of caring and compassion by the organization's leadership to a very
(The HR Doctor is written by Phil Rosenberg, Broward County Fla.
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