Handling the death of an employee

Dealing with death and grief in the workplace

Matt Nigh
Matt Nigh
Mar 8 · 5 min read
Our team at a volunteer event in Memphis a few years ago.

I was pulled aside by one of my most tenured people into a conference room. Joe (not his real name) told me he was diagnosed with cancer and he was starting chemo immediately.

It was like being hit with a brick. Joe was my friend, and a good friend to many on our team. We had spent the last few years working together closely, and he became my second in command. In the moment, I didn’t know what to say as a friend, or as his manager.

I had to learn how to manage a terminally-ill employee, and figure out how to help my team through this.

When you are faced with something like this as a manager, you need to think through three things.

  • How can I help this person and their significant other as much as possible?
  • What is the right way to manage the team through this?
  • How do I handle communication and news?

Handling Communication

What information will you with your team? If your employee is terminal, respect their privacy. Not everyone is comfortable having their health information public. What is the employee (or significant other) ok with you sharing? What information do they want you to keep private?

Ask explicitly if there is anything that should be kept private.

When an employee passes — tell your team quickly. That is something that should never be water cooler gossip. Get out in front of any back channel communication. Be up front with your team and include any appropriate details (service details, flowers, support, etc).

Don’t be afraid to challenge the employee

Joe said he wanted to keep working after his diagnosis. We walked through his benefits together to make sure he understood that wasn’t necessary. Joe told me he understood but wanted to keep busy and work. I told him we would support whatever decision he made.

It became obvious that was a mistake.

Because of his personal situation, we couldn’t give Joe any meaningful work. Our team focused on giving him a completely flexible schedule. Because of that, Joe didn’t feel like he was productive. Why would he? His work wasn’t meaningful.

If I had another chance, I would sit down with Joe again. I would talk to him about how even though we value him at work , we want him to take care of himself more. I would do everything I could help him understand we wanted him to spend as much time as he could with his family.

No one knows how to react

Many people felt like they didn’t know what to do after Joe passed. How should they feel? Should they attend the funeral? Should they send flowers? There will be a lot of questions. It is likely you will face the same challenge. Help your team process the event.

Expect a diverse reaction from your team. Each person responds to death differently. Help people understand that diversity of reaction is okay.

Your job as manager is to help your team grieve and be supportive. Spend a lot of time listening to your team. Don’t spend time judging how they react. Encourage people to take time off if it is needed.

Grieve yourself

As you spend time helping your team — take a look at yourself. Your team will see you as an example of how to handle the situation. I spent a lot of time talking about Joe’s after his death to different team members. I talked about some of the fun times, and told some jokes about the terrible times.

If I didn’t take care of myself, I wouldn’t have been able to take care of my team.

You do the paperwork

Anyone who has dealt with medical emergencies knows how much paperwork there is and how many insurance questions there are. Depending on your role, you also might be reaching out to your insurance company to notify them.

Your team should focus on removing as much paperwork burden from the employee as possible. If your team can research the answer to a question, or call a provider on behalf of the employee, do it.

Work with the spouse (or significant other)

If the employee has a spouse, then reach out. If you don’t already know the family, reach out and offer support. Make sure they have the details of who to contact at your company for benefits information.

If you are a small business — you will likely already know the spouse. In that case, you might want to organize some support from your team. Things like meals, chores, even car rides can make a big difference and are easy for a team to coordinate.


  • Help the employee (or relatives) understand and maximize their benefits. Take as much of the paperwork and benefits research from your employee and their family as possible.
  • Talk to the employee’s spouse and assist with their death benefits after the employee’s passes. Ensure the spouse has quick and easy access to someone who can answer their benefits questions.
  • Team updates and communication will help the team stay connected with what is going on. Ensure you are not saying anything you shouldn’t.
  • Keep work moving along, minimizing how teams are functionally impacted as much as possible.
  • Provide your team emotional support. Let people grieve in their own way while focusing on helping where you can.
  • Don’t forget about yourself. Take some time off and grieve. Do what you need to.

There is a lot of content out there.

I appreciate you reading mine.

I write about building products, and how to run software companies.
Feel free to reach out to discuss either. I’m happy to trade stories.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or my company, Fifty Seven Pounds.

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Matt Nigh

Written by

Matt Nigh

Entrepreneur and tech leader based in Seattle. Building business and marketing operations for startups and technology companies. www.mattnigh.net

The Startup

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