A Death in the Workplace

How Leaders Can Help an Organization Carry on After a Tragedy

Feb 13, 2020
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  When a colleague dies, it can shake up an entire organization. In fact, it’s one of the most emotionally disruptive dynamics that an organization encounters.

How can leaders help their workplace and employees move forward in the wake of a tragedy?

As difficult as it is, Maryland Smith’s J. Gerald Suarez says, leaders must take up the mantle of respectfully and tactfully guiding their employees through the grieving process while staying focused on organizational priorities.

“It is a delicate balance between helping people within the organization to heal and maintaining the operational readiness of the business,” says Suarez, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Leaders, who are themselves dealing with the sense of loss, have to simultaneously become a source of strength and continuity for the team and organization.”

Unexpected loss specifically, Suarez says, tends to have a paralyzing effect on an organization. The death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant was a recent example of this, he says.

“Kobe Bryant’s death had a ripple effect on the global NBA and sports community, but this impact was amplified at his various organizations and endeavors like the Mamba Sports Academy and Granity Studios,” Suarez says. “This was a dramatic and devastating event because they lost their boss, mentor, coach, coworker and friend.”

Although the void left by the death of a coworker can be overwhelming, it also may serve as a catalyst for inspiration, resilience and unity in the workplace, Suarez says. Leadership must ensure that the sense of loss never dampens the spirit and mission of the organization, he says.

“This is a shared process that ultimately everyone experiences together,” says Suarez. “Take the opportunity to channel the pain into renewed purpose, help people reconnect with values, reflect on what matters most and use this moment to nurture a culture of empathy.”

It is important to remember that leaders are only human too, Suarez says. It is admirable to put on a brave face for employees, he says, but leaders must grieve in their own capacity in order to better assist those they supervise.

“With so many people relying on them for support, leaders must have a place to recharge and reflect themselves,” Suarez says. “Just like your employees, understand that it is perfectly OK to reach out for help when you need it.”

Suarez offers the following tips for leaders navigating a loss in the workplace:

Do not rush to turn the page. Grieving is never a linear process and everyone goes through it at a different pace, Suarez says. “Emotions oscillate and may vary in intensity. Recognize employees in pain, help them find a renewed purpose and build resilience by focusing on maintaining a healthy mindset,” he says.

Be accessible. Engage the team, build connectedness, create forums for coworkers to share stories and express feelings, says Suarez. “Send the signal that it is encouraged to share their memories. Avoidance is never an effective long-term strategy to help the team overcome their deep-seated emotions and feelings,” he says.

Memorialize the legacy and impact. Suarez recommends keeping the presence of the deceased vibrant by naming a space in the organization like a conference room or an award that warrants an annual celebration. “Doing so creates a chance to keep the memories of this person alive and an opportunity to appreciate their life,” he says.

Extend support to the family. Employees will notice your actions to offer concerted help and support to the grieving family, says Suarez. “This is an opportunity for the organization to build a sense of community and demonstrate its values in action,” he says.

Redefine the vacant position. Suarez says to handle the transition of work with responsiveness and thoughtfulness. “Hiring a replacement while keeping everything else intact could be perceived as insensitive,” he says.



About the Expert(s)


Dr. J. Gerald Suarez is a premier educator, speaker and consultant in the fields of Organizational Design, Systems Thinking and Total Quality Management. Suarez joined Smith in 2005 as Executive Director of the multidisciplinary Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams (QUEST) Honors Fellows program. He was a Ralph J. Tyser Teaching Fellow and an Executive Education Senior Fellow. From 2008 to 2010 he served as Associate Dean of External Strategy, leading the offices of marketing communications, recruitment and career services.

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