Posted on / Updated on / in Blog & Succession Planning /

Just 11 laps into Sunday’s Las Vegas Indy 300, Dan Wheldon—driving car no. 77—went airborne and crashed into a fence. In all, 15 cars were involved in a massive pileup that one driver described as looking like a scene from “The Terminator.”

Wheldon was airlifted from the track to a local hospital. A short time later, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard announced Wheldon had passed away from “unsurvivable injuries.”

Officials decided to call the race, but the drivers, many sobbing openly, did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon. Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the most popular drivers in open-wheel racing, was only 33, a husband and father of two young sons.

Wheldon was IndyCar’s fourth fatality since the series started in 1996. The last death was in 2006 when Paul Dana was killed during a crash in Miami, at a race Wheldon later won.

Wheldon’s death shook the racing world, especially those who have competed beside him for years. While our first thoughts and prayers go out to his family, we cannot forget about the people he worked with.

Co-workers can be greatly affected by the passing of a fellow co-worker. If you think about it, we spend nearly 40 hours a week in the same office as our co-workers. Over time, we get to know them as individuals and even get to know their families. Co-workers almost become like a second family, one that you may sometimes see more of than your own family.

So what happens when one of them suddenly passes away? How do you support your employees to help them get through this rough time when you are grieving yourself? While there is no step-by-step procedure, taking the following actions can help employees begin to deal with the death of a co-worker.

Communicate. Many employees who are grieving often need to “talk it out.” Make sure you or your HR professional is available to employees who need to talk about their feelings. This can also be done in a group format. Make these gatherings available to anyone who wishes to attend. Ensure all details of funeral services are communicated to employees, along with any donation requests or the wishes of the family.

Show your support. It is important that your employees understand you are aware of their loss and you are there to help them through it. This may mean making exceptions to rules—for example, allowing employees to use bereavement leave during this time, even though it is usually reserved for immediate family only. Another way to show support is to allow anyone who wishes to attend the funeral to do so, even if it is more than the typical number of absences you would allow, with the understanding that this may briefly affect work. Also, the company may wish to make a donation to the family or host a collection and match employee donations.

Identify those who may need extra help. Inevitably, there will be employees who had a close connection with the deceased employee. Reach out to these individuals and offer additional resources and support, such as additional grief counseling or time off. Consider engaging these employees in an act of remembrance—for example, allow them to lead an activity such as planting a garden or dedicating an office or conference room to the employee’s memory.

Be sensitive regarding replacement. Recovering from such a loss will take time, and the company should be prepared to move slower than usual when it comes to finding a replacement for the deceased employee. It is recommended that employers wait several weeks after business has returned to normal before beginning a new search. HR and management should initiate discussions with employees, letting then know that a replacement is being sought. The employee moving into this position should be well informed of what has happened, and management should recognize that this employee may have a rockier start than others.

It is important to take steps to help your employees deal with the death of a co-worker. By offering grief education training, the office can have procedures in place so that things run as smooth as possible.

Did you know: Grief costs U.S. companies more than $75 billion annually in lost productivity, according to the Grief Recovery Institute. We touched on what you should do from an emotional standpoint, but now we want to cover want to do from a business continuity standpoint.

Moving On

You need to think about who will be taking on the roles of the deceased employee. In the interterm between hiring a new person to fill the role, other employees may need to help out. This is where it is important to have job descriptions to help you divide and conquer. Other co-workers can do certain aspects of the job until a new person is brought in. If you don’t have job descriptions, we can help you out. Read more about that here.

A passing of a co-worker also reminds of how important succession planning is. You can read about succession planning in our previous blog about Steve Jobs and Apple.

Remember to follow up with life insurance policies and death benefits. Make sure someone is pulling all that information together for a family. The family is obviously going to be very overwhelmed and may forget that the company had a life insurance policy. Help them out by giving them all the necessary information.

Also, don’t forget about people outside of your office that may be affected by the death of your employee. If your employee worked with clients or other businesses, it is important that you issue a statement to them to avoid rumors or uncertainty. Those other businesses may need to grieve as well. They also may want to contribute to a donation or a memory fund so make sure to pass along all of the funeral information.

Dan Wheldon’s unexpected death along with the recent passing of Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs reminds us all that life is much too short. Remember to take the time to appreciate your employees.

Integrity HR is here to help you with all your HR issues. Contact us today.

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about the author: Amy Letke

Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success.