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Grief and Organizational Grace

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member China Gorman, who writes and thinks about the challenges of building cultures of strong employee engagement for top performance and innovation. China was formerly CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, and COO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Today, many people are dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. Whether from the pandemic, or any of the host of other causes that are seeming to hypertrophy because of the pandemic, our friends, neighbors, and co-workers are experiencing the loss of loved ones more frequently than usual. As friends and neighbors, we know what to do. We offer food, drop-in visits, babysitting - and every other thing we can think of to support our friends.

But what about our employees? Our co-workers? Is it appropriate to reach out in sympathy? What if we say the wrong thing? What if they cry at work? What if their productivity suffers? What if they are more frequently absent?

Leaders all over the world struggle with organizational responses to personal tragedies. Here's what one leader I know did.

A couple of years ago, after a very brief illness, a friend's husband of 35 years suddenly passed away. He was young, vibrant, and they had many years ahead of them. It was shocking in the extreme. At the time she was a consultant and had long-standing contracts with several organizations. She didn't have one employer, she had four. And of course, all were appropriately sympathetic and caring in the immediate days following his passing. One CEO, however, was an inspiring example for how to handle the personal tragedy of a team member.

He lived in Europe and she in the U.S., so they couldn't see each other in person. But for the first month or so she heard from him EVERY DAY. It might have been a Facebook Messenger message, or a Skype message, or an internal system message. But he reached out every day. He didn't expect a response and she rarely sent one. He just wanted her to know in real-time that he and the team were thinking of her. Words cannot express what that meant to her. In time, the messages became less frequent, but for six months she got a caring and supportive message from him at least once a week.

In my experience, this is a unique example of the power of personal and organizational values in action. During these difficult times for all employers and employees around the world, we could use more of these examples of what I'm starting to call “Organizational Grace”.

The challenge is that organizations are what they are: organized. But there should be some groundwork done so that the organization is prepared for the unthinkable. And it could be as simple as a boss reaching out regularly in a human way to a grieving employee. The power of a human touch (virtual or actual) cannot be under-valued.

Most organizations have bereavement policies that provide a few days off with pay to deal with the death of a family member. And I suspect that most organizations are probably not counting those days too closely right now. But days off to handle the logistics of the passing of a family member, while critical, don't begin to provide the “grace” part of an organization's potential support.

A standing, rotating committee to jump in and support an affected team member is a start. We generally assign “buddies” to new employees for a period of months. Why not make a similar commitment to our colleagues who have lost a spouse or other family member? These volunteers would agree to reach out regularly, offer personal support, and generally put an arm around the affected employee for as long as it is needed. This support could be on-site - if you're working on location - or virtual if you're working from home. A touch is a touch. Humanity is powerful - and we're all learning that in 2020.

The difference between asking “what can I do?” and showing up with a bucket of chicken and a salad is huge. While comfort may be taken from “what can I do?”, real solace is provided when listening for areas of need and then providing the answers. A friend with small children who lost her husband couldn't ever respond to “let me know if I can do anything to help.” She wept with gratitude, however, when a colleague showed up with movie passes to take her kids to the movies while she went to get her hair cut and her nails done - courtesy of her employer.

Identifying the human need and answering it is true grace. And it is heartwarming to know in these challenging days that many organizations are becoming more human in their connections to their employees, and more graceful in their interactions.

Grace Committees, consistent touches, do - don't ask, are the building blocks of contemporary, human organizational responses to personal, employee tragedy. Don't underestimate their power.

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