February 3, 2016

How to Support a Grieving Colleague

SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- How does one tactfully communicate in the workplace with a grieving colleague?  “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be OK but acknowledging that it is not,” wrote Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, after her husband died last year. Grief at the workplace can be uncomfortable. 

“The mistake most people make is ignoring it as if it didn’t occur,” Senior Associate Dean Joyce E. A. Russell at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, tells Mashable. “We are afraid we are going to say the wrong thing or set them off into this tailspin of crying,” says Russell, also an industrial and organizational psychologist.

Also, avoid judging, and expecting a colleague to grieve in a certain manner, says Russell. Don’t verbalize, hint, or suggest with body language like eye rolling that a colleague should have kicked their mourning to the curb months ago. Or don’t same something like, “‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’re already back at work and you just lost your mom.’ That is insensitive.”

The loss of a four-legged companion can be devastating as well. “Pets can be very important to people’s lives,” Russell says. It’s not ridiculous to express condolences to a coworker who lost a pet.

Russell says that avoiding a bereaved colleague is hurtful and ultimately confusing.

The Mashable piece incorporates Russell’s advice with further guidelines:

• Do acknowledge a colleague’s loss – with a simple card, at least.

• Respect that grief has no timeline. It may recede for minutes or hours and then come back for days. 

• Don’t assume that you know how a coworker is feeling -- refrain from saying, “Oh, you must feel terrible.”

• Don’t post anything about your colleague’s situation on social media.

• Don’t give unsolicited advice -- instead, offer help and support.



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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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