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The HR Doctor Is In

Dear HR Doctor:

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?



Dear Grieving:

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 co-worker.

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 stages.

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 HR.

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 arrangements.

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 problems.

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 office accommodations.

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 well.

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 difficult situation.

HR Doctor

(The HR Doctor is written by Phil Rosenberg, Broward County Fla. personnel director.)


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