A manager is often the first person in the workplace to be notified when a team member loses a loved one, has been diagnosed with a major illness, or is injured in an accident. Human Resources staff often speak with employees early on in these sorts of personal crises as well.
Conversations of this nature may be emotional and unsettling. They may also stir up reminders of your own experiences with grief, loss, or illness. Regardless of your personal feelings, it’s important that the employee walk away from the encounter feeling supported by the organization. These tips will help you handle these discussions with sensitivity and compassion:
- Plan ahead. Keep tissues and bottled water in your office for in-person meetings. For phone calls, consider creating a script or making a list of helpful phrases.
- Listen. Someone who is coping with a catastrophic life event may be emotional or agitated. Try “letting the fizz out of the bottle” by allowing the person to speak for a few minutes without interruption.
- Express empathy. Acknowledge that the person is in a frightening or life-changing situation. Sample language: “I’m sorry, I know this must be tough. I would imagine you feel overwhelmed.”
- Avoid platitudes. Some phrases, while well-intended, may come across as trite or insensitive. Comments to avoid include:
- “I know how you feel.”
- “That’s not so bad.”
- “Time heals all wounds.”
- “It was God’s will.”
- “My (family member) had cancer and died.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- Redirect the conversation. If the employee will need to take a leave of absence or change schedules temporarily, ask for any pertinent details and explain what benefits the company will provide. (Keep the relevant HR policy on hand and refer the employee to HR as appropriate.) If the situation is still uncertain, ask the employee to provide an update when possible. Sample language: “Our team is here to support you, not just at work, but as a person, too. Please let me know your schedule when you are able so that I can arrange coverage.”
- Review next steps. An upset person may struggle with retaining information, so repeat key points several times. If possible, follow up with an email or provide an information sheet. Sample language: “I know this is a lot to absorb. I’ll send you an email summarizing the information we discussed, and I’m available to answer questions, too.”
- Remind the person about LifeMatters. LifeMatters can help you cope with your feelings about the conversation as well. Sample language: “LifeMatters is available to assist you and your family members with practical resources and emotional support. You can call them day or night.”
- End on a positive note. Let the employee know that you appreciate the opportunity to assist them during a difficult time. Be human and empathetic. Reiterate the organization’s support. Sample language: “Thanks for letting me know. Again, I’m so sorry to hear about your situation. Please update me when you can.”