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Court Ruling Puts Workplace Grief on Trial

Even though the defendants avoided liability, grief recovery experts say the case illustrates the pitfalls for managers who are not trained to be sufficiently sensitive toward and educated about grief.

November 14, 2011
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The case of a former pharmaceutical company employee whose supervisor allegedly told her to stop talking about her dead daughter while at work has focused attention on an often overlooked workplace health issue: grief.

Cecelia Ingraham's daughter died in May 2005. About 18 months later, she was still deeply grieving her loss when a manager at Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical in Raritan, New Jersey, told her in a meeting that he had received complaints from co-workers about pictures of her daughter Tatiana that she had posted in her cubicle.

"You have to take those pictures down because she's dead, your daughter is dead, and it bothers people," Carl DeStefanis, director of the marketing department, allegedly instructed her. "They have a problem with it. And you can no longer speak about her."

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled in August that Ingraham could not sue Ortho-McNeil, parent company Johnson & Johnson, and DeStefanis for intentional infliction of emotional distress, in part because she had not shown DeStefanis' conduct was "extreme and outrageous." But even though the defendants avoided liability, grief recovery experts say the case illustrates the pitfalls for managers who are not trained to be sufficiently sensitive toward and educated about grief.

"Employers need to understand that grief is really a health issue," says Cynthia Oliver, director of the not-for-profit Good Grief Center in Pittsburgh. "You can have the same kind of problems with grief as with any other kind of health concern."

According to a landmark 2003 study by the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, California, employee heartbreak costs U.S. employers $75 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased errors and accidents. The most costly grief incident for businesses is a death of a loved one, accounting for $37.5 billion per year in losses. About 1 in 4 employees is grieving at any given time. Nevertheless, Oliver says, "There's a lack of understanding about [grief] in the workplace." Managers may not even be "able to identify grief."

Ingraham's grief initially came to the attention of Carmen Harris, an HR manager at Ortho-McNeil, who, according to the appeals court's ruling, received complaints "about plaintiff's tendency to speak to them about Tatiana's tragic passing. The co-workers said they sympathized with plaintiff, but they felt uncomfortable and at a loss for 'what else that we can say that we have not said already.' " Harris passed the complaints on to DeStefanis, who met with Ingraham in a conference room on Nov. 17, 2006.

In a deposition, Ingraham testified that DeStefanis not only addressed the photos of her daughter but also her display of Tatiana's ballet slippers in her cubicle. "He said that he had several complaints from the managers and the directors about my pictures of my daughter who had passed away and I needed to take them down including her ballet slipper[s]," she recalled. He also allegedly said, "When you come into the office you can no longer speak of her because she's dead."

Ingraham, who took short-term disability leave and eventually resigned, filed her lawsuit in April 2008. "There is no question that any reasonable employer should know that telling a grieving mother not to talk about her deceased daughter might cause emotional distress, but a severe reaction was not a risk that one should predict," the appeals court said in affirming a trial judge who summarily dismissed the case.

DeStefanis testified that he thought he could have a frank discussion with Ingraham. If Ingraham's account of the meeting is true, DeStefanis did "just about everything wrong you can imagine," says Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute. But he also believes things should never have gotten to that point.

"My big concern is why sometime earlier HR people hadn't gone in and offered her some sort of therapy," Friedman says.

Ingraham's creation of a "shrine" to her daughter in her cubicle and apparent need to keep talking to co-workers about her loss, Friedman suggests, were important clues to management that she was "living in the pain." By the time she met with DeStefanis, "Things had gotten way out of hand."

Whether Ortho-McNeil had an employee assistance program or other resources is unclear. Lawyers for the company and Ingraham did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Friedman and Oliver recommend that employers provide managers with training that helps them to understand grief and provide help and support for grieving employees.

"You don't need to be a therapist," Friedman says. "You need to be a human being who can speak openly about a subject that everyone thinks is out of bounds."

"We're all going to have to deal with loss," Oliver says. "The better an employer is equipped ... the better the workplace will be. It's not something you can avoid."

Matthew Heller is a freelance editor and writer based in Los Angeles. To comment email editors@workforce.com.

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• The Grief Recovery Institute's study is available at grief-recovery.us/Articles/The_Grief_Index_2003.pdf.

• The New Jersey appeals court's opinion in the Ingraham case is available at lawlibrary.rutgers.edu/courts/appellate/a2216-10.opn.html.

Other resources include:

Good Grief Center, goodgriefcenter.com. This site provides access to the center's Grief in the Workplace program, including downloads of program materials.

• Grief expert David Kessler offers tips for supervisors, managers and executives on how to handle employee grief at grief.com/grief-in-the-workplace.

• Grief and Loss in the Workplace, workplacegrief.org. Compiled by grief specialist Kristi Dyer, the website provides links to articles, books and other resources.

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