Thoughts on how to handle the death of an employee’s spouse

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Q: Recently we had an employee whose spouse died.  The employee took off a week of work and then returned to work part-time in the office and part-time at home, for a week or so.  We don’t have a bereavement policy.  What should we do regarding pay?  What is the maximum length of time we should offer?

A: Losing a spouse is a major loss.  In Massachusetts (and most other states) there is no requirement to offer bereavement pay or even time off.  However, most employers do have such a policy.

Most of our clients have a bereavement policy.  Most offer one day of pay for an extended family member like an uncle or a cousin.  Some policies also offer a day off if an employee loses a friend or a neighbor.  If the employee loses a closer family member, like a sibling, three days might be offered.  If extensive travel is involved to attend services, additional days may be given as well.  For a spouse or a child, many of my clients will give five days off with pay and permit an employee to return to work on a gradual basis, like your company has allowed.  Employers should consider the closeness of the relationship.  If an employee suffers the loss of an aunt, but the aunt raised the employee, flexibility in how the policy is interpreted, would be important.  Some of our clients have given a month off when the loss is very traumatic, especially if the death was unexpected.

Re-entry to work can be a challenge.  If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), support and advice from your EAP could be helpful at this time.

The employee’s manager or HR representative may ask the employee how the employer can support the employee.  Could a flexible work schedule help?  Should the employee consider a temporary leave?  Would working at home be helpful?  Sometimes the employee may not know the answer immediately but knowing that they have a supportive employer, who is offering them options may help.

Also, most employers send an expression of sympathy to the employee at this time.  A floral arrangement or a donation to a favorite charity might be considered.

Finally, it is important that the employee feel supported during this time.  If other employees can assist in taking on additional responsibilities or projects during this time, that may give the employee time to grieve.

I would suggest erring on the side of generosity and paying this employee for their time off.  Your employee just suffered a tremendous loss.  Support and understanding are key.  Everyone grieves differently.  It may take this person a bit of time to re-engage 100%.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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