Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Confronting an empty desk – when a colleague is injured or dies

Posted in HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on March 9, 2011

This is my fourth posting to deal with the issues of the suddenly empty desk (see HR and Personnel for earlier installments) and I have approached the issues this brings up from the perspective of employees, managers and Human Resources. I turn now to look at a very particular situation, where an employee is seriously injured or dies. This can create stress even if it is a result of an incident completely unrelated to work or the workplace, but it becomes a significant issue for the business this person worked for if it happened there, or while the employee was actively working on behalf of their employer.

• When a colleague is seriously injured or dies on the job, this creates a great deal of stress for all of their colleagues they worked with or who knew them personally. This type of event can bring out a wide range of emotions including a sense of guilt, and that can arise even when the people involved could not in any way be held accountable or responsible. Colleagues and friends at work can develop work and performance problems, and can have problems sleeping at night, and depending on circumstances may even need grief counseling.
• Much of this can be brought into sharp focus for a lost employee’s supervisor and certainly where they may feel some sense of responsibility for what happened. And they can feel torn between conflicting needs in reaching out to and supporting the members of their team, and in meeting organizational and business requirements.
• HR faces a special set of challenges in this, insofar as they have to deal with the possibilities of litigation and liability as well as the more interpersonal issues and problems that come from this type of event. Failure to bridge the gap in understanding and responding to the very real needs and concerns of colleagues can have serious, long term impact on the business by undermining morale and by creating a toxic and seemingly uncaring work environment.

Response and follow-through after a serious on the job injury or death has to include all of the legally required steps and processes that the business has to address. It should involve review of processes and procedures with an eye to identifying and reducing risk to the business and for its employees. It should involve training, or at the very least review of current employee training to identify and correct any gaps that could contribute to workplace risk. But effective follow-through should include a human face and a human awareness, and of a type that can all too easily be pushed aside in dealing with the immediate and pressing business-side concerns.

The best way to insure that all sides to this are recognized and effectively dealt with, is to proactively prepare for times when an employee-focused and employee-acknowledging response might be needed. That means building a propensity to do this type of thing right into the corporate culture, where employees are acknowledged and reached out to in times of need as a matter of course and as a part of standard operating procedure. And as a final thought for this posting, I add that this type of preparation includes knowing when matters can simply be handled in-house and when third party support might be needed, through proffered grief counseling and other focused support for individual employees, mediation where employees and employee groups may step forward, and by other means. In this, starting out with a wide-ranging perspective and an awareness of possible issues can make all the difference.

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