When Grief Causes Employees’ Jobs to Suffer

June 1, 1996
The Dilemma:
Mark, a co-worker in sales, lost his fiance in a traffic accident two months ago. Your company’s policy for this situation allows for one funeral day, and that’s it. Mark took his one day—plus all of his remaining sick and vacation time—and returned to work a month ago, still extremely distracted and despondent. Usually a star-performer, Mark just lost a big account—at least partially due to an argument with the client. And Mark isn’t as reliable as he used to be, often arriving late to meetings and appointments. Meanwhile, sales for his territory are significantly behind schedule for this quarter, and his boss is extremely frustrated with him. He feels that Mark is disrupting the team and that this disruption will undoubtedly impact the bottom line. His solution? He has come to you to discuss terminating Mark. What do you say in response?

Readers Respond:
There’s little doubt that Mark returned to work too soon. My first reaction would be to have Mark’s supervisor focus on the long term. We already have an employee with proven sales ability. It’s probable the expense of replacing him would be much more costly than investing a few company resources to assist Mark with his grief.

I’m a big believer in communication and setting realistic expectations. I would talk to Mark’s supervisor about the grief process. I would advocate assisting Mark with trying to regain his personal strength and perhaps his former performance level. Of course there’s no guarantee as to how receptive Mark would be or how long it would take for him to heal emotionally. Although termination may be an option eventually, there would be many steps before we would decide that’s the best decision.

First, I’d put Mark in touch with the EAP. It’s imperative that Mark receive counseling. Many people deny their emotions, returning to work too soon, trying to take their minds off their loved ones. This results in intensifying the sense of loss and isolation, which may account for the anger Mark is displaying.

I’d discuss employment options with Mark’s supervisor prior to meeting with Mark. It’s entirely possible the best recommendation is for Mark to take additional time off. The supervisor has had two months of poor coverage of an important territory, so he may not be feeling receptive to this idea. I’ve found it best to always recognize business concerns. If we’re going to try to help Mark, we need the supervisor’s support.

One option is that Mark could take a leave of absence. Either he would be replaced or his territory would be split up among the remaining salespeople. Then, when or if Mark returns, we would address his employment opportunities at that time. We could guarantee him priority consideration for any open positions of equal responsibility and salary. A better alternative is that we allow Mark to take the time needed and hold his position open.

There are realistic ways to maintain territory coverage while still keeping the position open. For instance, we could offer the temporary sales position to a "junior" sales representative. This would enable Mark to take the time he needs, without the added pressure of worrying about employment, and it would give another employee the chance to develop or display skills in preparation for the next open sales position.

It’s vital that the plan and expectations of all parties be clearly communicated. This situation, successfully managed, could allow a good employee the time he needs, address a supervisor’s immediate concerns, and long term: successfully keep a viable company resource.

Hopefully the good faith and support invested in Mark will be returned with renewed productivity and loyalty. Regardless of the outcome, you have made your best efforts in assisting a co-worker which should send an important message to the rest of the company.
Carla Neumann,
Human Resources Manager,
International Data Group,
San Mateo, California

If Mark has a long, successful record with the company, I wouldn’t allow a termination to take place with such a short history of events. Instead, I would talk to Mark and inform him that he’s a valued employee and the company wants to continue a successful employment relationship with him. I would request that he join either a support group or obtain counseling (with the company contributing somewhat toward the cost of either). Another option would be to inform the employee of his entitlement to an unpaid leave of absence. If he refused to do any of the above, I would tell the employee that progressive discipline procedures will be initiated and he would be given a specific time frame to improve his job performance. If Mark only had been with the company a short time, I think his position in the company, job responsibilities and the ease with which he could be replaced need to be taken into consideration.

As an advocate for an employee-friendly workplace, I encourage all HR professionals to keep in mind during performance problem periods that correcting the situation isn’t always cut and dry and necessitates thinking before leaping—with a heart, when required.
Maura A. Keenan,
Personnel Administrator,
Monell Chemical Senses Center,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It’s obvious that Mark hasn’t completed the cycle that individuals go through when they suffer a traumatic loss. Prior to this incident, Mark was a star-performer and has proven that he’s capable of doing his job successfully. Termination isn’t the answer for either Mark or your company.

Mark’s boss needs guidance in the handling of two areas: Mark’s emotional well-being and his work performance. The loss of a big account, the drop in quarterly sales and his lack of dependability are areas that need to be addressed immediately. Mark needs to be counseled on these points, and if he’s unable to meet the requirements of the job at this point in time, a leave of absence is a logical option.

If you don’t have an EAP in place, you need to provide some resources for Mark’s use in helping him accept what has happened. Individuals have different timetables for recovering from traumas such as this. Although Mark suffered his loss over two months ago, it’s obvious he’ll need more time to learn to accept his loss. An EAP will help both Mark and your company understand and deal with the situation. Should Mark’s performance continue to slide, you can use the EAP to help Mark develop a balance between the requirements of work and handling an emotional loss. In addition, you could use a performance improvement plan to provide a positive step toward returning Mark to his past success in the sales arena.

Although you may have some short-term frustrations with this approach, in the long run, patience and understanding combined with a reasonable plan for monitoring business needs is the best course of action for both your company and Mark.
Jim Green,
Human Resources Manager,
Lacks Industries Inc.,
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Absolutely not!!! It’s bad enough he lost his fiance, but to lose his job, too? Mark has been a "star-performer." He needs a chance to recapture his old abilities. Grief is a hard emotion to deal with and people handle it in different ways. Obviously Mark hasn’t dealt sufficiently with the loss of his fiance. He may never "get over it" but he can "get on with it."

Mark does need to be made aware of his shortcomings and what could happen to him. HR should discuss this with Mark and his supervisor. Mark also needs to know what an integral part of the company he is and that the company cares about him. For example, California Microwave Inc. has an EAP for its employees. This program allows five free visits with a counselor. Mark needs to learn to grieve so he can pull his life back together.
Nancy Seigh,
HR Representative,
California Microwave Inc.,
Belcamp, Maryland

Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, pp. 165-167.