Employee Bereavement—Why Strategy Is the Best Policy

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Handling personal loss is one of the hardest things HR is asked to do. The knowledge that it will happen at some point is perhaps the only certainty; otherwise, there is nothing but uncertainty in when, where, how, and why it will impact your organization. But while every instance is unique in its effects and challenges, the knowledge that you and your organization have the ability to provide valuable help for grieving employees can make dealing with a situation—whether it’s the first or the fifteenth—a little less daunting.

What’s a Bereavement Policy?

What Is Bereavement?

Bereavement is the state someone is in when they have suffered the loss of a loved one; they are bereaved or, in more formal terms, they’re sometimes referred to as “the bereaved.” A bereavement policy is a set of guidelines an organization uses to compensate a bereaved employee, usually in the form of time off, but sometimes including financial or other assistance related to funeral arrangements or legal issues that follow a death in the family.

How Do Bereavement Policies Work?

Bereavement policies define the benefits issued to bereaved employees and usually specify what types of situations do or don’t qualify for some or all of the benefits of the policy. For example, the death of a friend, coworker, or neighbor might not qualify as enough to receive bereavement benefits, or it might qualify for some time off; meanwhile, the passing of an immediate family member usually would qualify for the maximum amount of time off in the policy in addition to any other benefits in the policy.

What Does ‘Immediate Family’ Mean in a Bereavement Policy?

Technically, an employee’s immediate family includes anyone directly related to them by blood or marriage and not removed by any degree; in other words, their own parents, their spouse, and their own children and stepchildren. Typically, the maximum benefits of a bereavement policy apply to the loss of an immediate family member; however, many organizations are adopting more relaxed interpretations of family, dropping the “immediate” to include other close relations, like domestic partners, significant others, parents-in-law, children-in-law, and divorced or separated spouses.  

What Is a Typical Bereavement Policy?

When you Google “typical bereavement policy,” the standard answer seems to be that most organizations provide between three and five days of bereavement for the death of an immediate family member. A 2015 SHRM study reported that non-government U.S. workers receive an average of four days of bereavement leave for the death of a spouse or child, three for domestic partners and other close relations, and two or fewer days for more distant relations.

However, there are also a number of high-profile outliers that are bucking the trend; Mastercard, for example, recently raised their bereavement policy from an already above-average 15 days to 20 for the loss of a family member. They cite Facebook overhauling its own policy as the inspiration for the change; the company increased its bereavement policy to 20 days after Facebook’s CEO, Sheryl Sandberg, experienced first-hand how the loss of her husband impacted her ability to return to work.

Why a Bereavement Policy Isn’t Enough

A policy is often perceived as the silver bullet for dealing with any predictable, repeated situation that could have a negative impact on the organization if it’s not dealt with in the right way every time. If you can create a policy for those situations, you have a set of rules that guarantees consistency, ensures fair treatment, and increases the likelihood of staying compliant.

While a bereavement policy is definitely something every organization should have in order to prevent time-off abuse and ensure compliance, some of the benefits also make relying solely on a policy the worst way to deal with bereavement. Why?

There are three main reasons:

Grief Is an Individual Experience

The impact of each bereavement situation is unique and should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. A policy can’t be flexible enough to do so without negating its own benefits, whereas even the most granular policy is unlikely to contain enough detail to ensure the best outcomes for either employees or the organization.

Policies Can Be Expensive

Not all organizations are Facebook: Granting enough leave to all bereaved employees might not be possible for every company, especially one that runs on thinner margins and can’t afford to be down one or more people for an extended period of time. A policy applies equal benefits to all employees whether they need them or not, and the more accommodating your policy, the more it will affect your budget.

Policies Are Impersonal

Most important, though, might be the fact that grief is a personal, but universal emotion—we will all experience grief at some point—and it should be handled in a way that communicates compassion and understanding; if it isn’t, we risk not being understood when it happens to us. So, while a policy ensures equal treatment, it does so by classifying and depersonalizing the affected individuals—which is the last thing we should do when we’re trying to show we understand and value someone who has suffered a personal tragedy.

While the small but growing trend towards more generous bereavement leave is a positive one, the Facebook example in particular highlights this last flaw in bereavement policies. It took a high-ranking executive experiencing her own personal tragedy to spark change for the rest of the organization, and the resulting publicity to inspire change at another organization. And while those changes were undoubtedly for the better, employees at those organizations are ultimately still benefiting from one person’s newly altered perception of bereavement. No matter how generous a policy is, the people it applies to are still being treated as a group rather than as individuals. Now, we aren’t assuming that either Facebook or Mastercard simply tacked on more grief leave and called things good, but some of the media coverage might lead you to believe it was and is that simple. And that’s why we’re saying that bereavement policies, while necessary, are not enough by themselves to deal appropriately with grief in the workplace.  

Why You Need a Bereavement Strategy Instead

Since a policy lacks the flexibility needed to address bereavement, the solution is a bereavement strategy: a program of training, guidance, and services that incorporates the policy as the starting element in a comprehensive plan of action. Where the bereavement policy typically specifies what benefits an employee receives and when, a bereavement strategy addresses the how and why: how an employee should be treated by their coworkers and superiors, why it is important to be compassionate and flexible, as well as what kind of additional measures an organization and its people can take beyond the defined policy to account for the individual experience. Bereavement strategies can also focus on longer-term outcomes, ensuring that when the employee returns to work (or not), the result is as beneficial as possible for everyone involved.

For example, a well-thought-out bereavement strategy could include training for managers—who are often the first people to hear the news from the employee—on how to deal with these types of situations: how to provide support in the moment as well as what kinds of questions to ask to ensure the news is handled with appropriate respect and privacy. It could go further by giving employees guidelines for communication after their coworker has returned to work: what to say, what to do, and what kinds of seemingly innocent or “helpful” remarks can, in fact, hurt a grieving person or destroy a great working relationship. It could even go so far as to include recommendations for job sculpting or supplementing your workforce in the case of an extended or critical absence. Finally, a solid bereavement strategy should incorporate promotion and education around a broader employee assistance program (EAP) that offers referrals, counseling, and other services to employees in crisis.     

When we asked Cassie Whitlock, the Director of HR at BambooHR, why she believes adopting a bereavement strategy is better than relying on a bereavement policy alone, she said, “First, I don’t think time [off] is necessarily the only way companies can or should support people through bereavement.” She believes employee education, manager training, and properly marketing a robust EAP can do as much if not more to help employees than simply granting them time away from work. Furthermore, she thinks that bereavement strategies provide the flexibility that allows smaller, less experienced organizations to tailor a positive outcome for both the employee and the business: “I think [bereavement strategies] can accomplish both the business side of dealing with bereavement as well as the compassionate side of bereavement without harming either.” And lastly, she thinks that bereavement policies don’t readily offer one critical element: room for organizations to grow and change with experience. “The problem with just relying on a policy is, there’s no perfect answer. Each time you deal with grief as an organization, you will learn from it, and your strategy helps you evolve.”      

What is your organization’s bereavement policy? Does it truly address the needs of your workforce? It might be time to re-assess your policies and instead implement a strategy to help support employees during their time of need.
Rob de Luca BambooHR

Rob de Luca is the senior copywriter for BambooHR, an award-winning leader in HR software serving over 11,000 business clients in more than 100 countries worldwide. Rob has written extensively on the topics of HR leadership and best practices and aims to contribute helpful content to the HR industry. He believes HR professionals deserve great content that enables them to do great work.  

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