HR Clinic: Handling bereavement at work

How should we manage a colleague asking for extended compassionate leave after a bereavement?

People respond to emotional situations in different ways, so it's important that, whatever you do, you act sensitively and in a way that suits your colleague's individual needs.

First and foremost, you should ensure that your compassionate leave provisions are known to the employee concerned and to anyone who may have managerial responsibility for him or her. Most such policies set out which relatives are covered by them and the amount of time off, paid or unpaid, that is available. However, do try to apply these provisions flexibly - in the post-nuclear family age, a bereavement can be just as deep if it is a friend or partner as it would be if it was a parent, spouse or child. And if employees feel they need more time off than is provided for in the policy, see what can be done with annual leave, unpaid absence or even, if they are extremely distressed, sickness absence.

Not everyone who is bereaved wants to take a long break from the office. Apart from dealing with the funeral, they may prefer to work through their grief, or perhaps keep flexible hours or work away from colleagues. You won't know unless you ask them, so as soon as you hear about their bereavement you should gently inquire as to what their plans and needs are.

It's more complicated if the person who has died is a fellow employee. Staff may feel they've lost a friend and all will react in different ways. Compassionate leave may not be appropriate, but some kind of collective commemoration or event may be, not to mention some representation at the funeral if the family agrees.

There can be particular complications if the bereavement relates to someone abroad. The employee may need extended time off and the timing of the return may be uncertain. Although you should still be as flexible as possible, in such circumstances it's not unreasonable to expect the employee to keep in regular touch with you so that you can plan to cover their duties.

Finally, keep a record of the circumstances of the bereavement and the time taken off. Although it is absolutely right to assume that the employee's needs are genuine, it is not unknown for the same individual to have their mother die two or three times as managers change and the HR department fails to keep proper personal files.

- John Burnell is director of Personnel Solutions. Send your HR questions to personnelsolutions@btopenworld.com.

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