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thoughtful bereavement policy

Creating a Compassionate and Fair Bereavement Policy

#hrbestpractices #goodhrpolicies #bereavementsupport June 22, 2023

When an employee loses a loved one, it can be an opportunity for your company to show that you value them as a person as much as a team member. One way we can show that support is through being organized on our end as HR ma

If you assert that your company practices a “people first” culture, your bereavement policy is a prime opportunity to show it. Yet often – especially at newer companies – HR managers make forming the formation of a bereavement policy a low priority. 

It makes sense, in a way. Other PTO matters come up more frequently. Not to mention that there are so many other pressing HR subjects like health benefits, hiring, and training. 

But when you need them, bereavement policies suddenly become incredibly important. In other words, you don’t want to be figuring out how to handle an employee who needs to take time off for their mother’s funeral when they tell you at the moment. ThisClearly, this is already an unsteady time for them, so you want to offer them a steady structure to help make their work plans as untaxing as possible.

Creating a Bereavement Policy

What does your bereavement policy need to stipulate? Let’s go through the essentials.

Who Counts as a “Loved One”? 

The definition of a close relationship varies from person to person. For this reason, it is good to detail examples of “loved ones” in your policy so that your employee understands expectations in different circumstances. You may want to create additional policy tiers addressing close family members, friends, and pets.

Some nuances to consider:

  • Take into account “parent-like” or “like-family” figures, which may be as important or more important to people than their actual family – if the childhood neighbor who raised your employee dies, honor the fact that they may need the same amount of time to grieve – and perhaps even sort out post-mortem responsibilities.

  • I mentioned pets above, but let me repeat it again: some people consider pets to be family members, and losing one has just as strong of an impact. They may need days off before they can continue to work usually normally. If you write off pet grief, you risk losing employees to your insensitivity.

  • Miscarriages have been chronically overlooked at large, so it makes sense companies would also not think to offer bereavement leave when a woman goes through a miscarriage. But the experience of grief for a would-be mother can hit with real intensity – not to mention lingering physical symptoms. Remember when we talked to about going above and beyond? Addressing miscarriage in your bereavement policy is like giving someone a gift they didn’t know they needed.

Number of Paid Days Off 

In America, private companies are not required to give their employees any time off after the death of a loved one. California, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington require employers to have some bereavement leave policy, but it is unregulated in all the other states, including Texas. However, we hope your company goes above and beyond the minimum requirements. A common standard is 3-5 days, with an additional allowance of 1-2 extra paid days off for out-of-state funerals.

It may stick out to you that 3-7 days off only fits a narrow set of situations. What if they need to travel out of the country to settle a parent’s affairs? That could take a few weeks, practically speaking. To respond to this, some companies add that employees can use a mixture of accrued PTO and unpaid time off (UTO) to take care of things fully.

Number of Unpaid Days Off

As mentioned above, it can be useful to let employees take UTO in order to give their bereavement leave end time more flexibility. They might prefer UTO for various reasons – perhaps they want to save PTO for later in the year, or they’re out of PTO but need the time for themselves anyway. UTO provides a release valve.

Is Time Off Required? 

You’ll want to decide your company’s stance on this. Some require employees to take off at least a few days after a loved one’s death. The motivation may be a combination of firm compassion and boundaries for both the employee’s and employer’s sake – after all, you don’t want someone to have a meltdown at work! 

You’ll want to consider your work environment when you make this call. For instance, if you manage a factory where people could hurt themselves if they work in a distracted way, you may want to require a few days off as well as provide grief counseling to make sure the employee can work in a safe way. 

How Should the Employee Communicate About Their Bereavement Leave? 

Make this process as simple and clear as you can. Do you want them to send an email to their immediate manager? Is there a Google Form that they can fill out? Is it the same procedure as any other PTO/UTO request? If so, it will likely need to be an expedited process, as death and mourning inherently happen on their own schedule.

You’ll also want to decide privacy standards and who communicates what. Will the HR manager tell people who work with the employee that they’ll be out of the office? Will they specify the reason, or leave that up to the employee to share? This is where you’ll need to use some personal discernment. The aim is to be the find the most sensitive and respectful stance. 

In some companies, it may help the employee avoid answering the same question over and over if a manager or HR employee briefly tells their coworkers that they’ve experienced the death of a loved one. In other company cultures, you may sense that that amount of transparency is unwelcome – in that case, you may simply want to say “they’re on leave for personal reasons,” or you can leave it up to the employee to communicate what they wish.

Do You Need to Protect Yourself from Bereavement Leave Abuse?

The awkward question: What if my employee lies about someone dying in order to take extra time off? Do I need to ask for a death certificate or obituary?

The general consensus among HR professionals: No. The odds of an employee lying about a family death out of the blue are low. And if they would lie about that, there are probably looming behavioral issues other behavioral issues threatening large that can be addressed with changes to their employment status without having to doubt someone’s mourning.

Grief Education

Not to call out Americans too much in this post, but… In spite of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, we can still be woefully out of touch with the process of death, dying, and mourning. Perhaps it doesn’t fit our optimism to accept that death is part of life. At any rate, death is a part of life, and the more we can learn about it, accept it, and create compassionate approaches to it, the better we can serve the people around us (and ourselves when we need it!)

As an HR professional, you can grow your emotional intelligence in the process of grief. Take courses or workshops offered by therapeutic professionals. You could even connect a grief counselor to your workplace and arrange for a few company-sponsored sessions for employees moving through mourning. 

Compassion Is Good Business Sense, Too

If you worked for a company that forced you to come into the office the day after your mother’s funeral and sit at your desk typing emails while you cry, how long would you stay at that company? Most of your emails would probably address seeking other jobs.

Instead, you can react to employees’ bereavement needs with individualized but fair treatment that meets them where they are. People-first culture works for employees, employers, and the bottom line, because turnover is costly. Employees will appreciate the respect, and you will reap the benefits of a stable and happier workforce in the long run.