One More Blog That’s Going to Make My Editor Cry
I’m sorry, Eagle Eye. I am. But if I’ve learned nothing else from the last week, it’s that losing an employee is not uncommon, but no one really wants to talk about it. So I think we have to. Don’t we? We owe that to her.
Today, I’m going to deal with the subject that I needed help with last week and could not find something suitable to guide me through it.
“Business is business, but your people are still human.”
Human capital is, at best, a squirrely sort of asset to have. Sure, they come in handy when you need to move a couch, but when you lose one of your own, the house is shaken to its foundations.
Teamwork in the Face of Loss
Vic’s death was not something we had planned for. We knew she was sick — that she’d had a stroke — but we were getting very positive progress reports. Her grandbaby had been born while she was in the hospital. Life seemed to be sort of normal, if you can consider anything about being in the hospital to be normal.
So when we learned that she had passed on, it was a blow like we’d never experienced as a team. I watched my people suffer deeply and grieve wildly. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. The best advice I could find would have me make an official announcement and move on. But we’re hardly official, and I’m definitely not that sterile.
What I ended up doing was spend two whole days crying. And I checked on my people every day. Some were worse off than others, and those who were feeling it hard, I checked on more frequently. When they started checking on me, I got a little worried. Maybe I was cracking under the weight of so much grief.
It’s Ok to Be Human
There’s no way to explain how terrible it feels to be the boss when this sort of thing happens. Your job is to keep the boat afloat, even though it’s leaking in a million places. You can’t be the one having the breakdown until everyone else is ok.
It’s like that thing on airplanes where you’re supposed to put your kid’s oxygen mask on first. Or at least, I think that’s it. I’ve only flown a few times, so what do I know?
Anyway, in this situation, filling your own teapot is an indulgence you simply can’t afford. You have to lead. You have to be strong and show your people that they, too, will move forward in their time.
Then you go ugly cry in the bathroom because you’re not made of fucking stone.
If I have learned anything from all of this, it’s that actions matter and words do nothing but ring hollow. I had to replace her. You have no idea how hard that was for me to do. But deadlines keep coming, and they don’t wait just because you wish you had funeral leave.
Some Tips for Making It Out the Other Side
I am far from the best business mind who has ever lived, but I am generally a fairly ok human. Or I like to think so, anyway.
That’s why I wrote this, even though it almost certainly will make my editor cry and has definitely made me cry. I didn’t know what to do. I was very lost. And if you’re ever in that situation, in THIS situation, I hope that you’ll know you aren’t alone. This is what we did to make it to this point, a week beyond our loss.
- Fundraising money for her family. Look, one of the most self-serving things you can do is tell someone you’re sending “thoughts and prayers” without backing that up with something helpful. Vic was someone’s mom, someone’s grandmother. She was lots of people’s friend. These people all need support in these hard times. We did a fundraiser because we had a window into her financials and they could have been a lot better, but even sending a basket of cookies or a card is a significant gesture.
- Freeze frame and take stock. I felt the world start to spin out of control when her daughter gave me the news. I’m sure the poor kid was feeling it worse than I was. But to keep from falling off the Earth, I had to stop where I was, make lists of what had to be done and what was more flexible, and step through it bit by bit. Keeping everybody busy was an important goal, but the most important goal was keeping them from drowning in a pit of overwhelm.
- Get back to work, but be flexible. A member of your team has died. They didn’t just quit to go live it up in Aruba. They are gone forever. This is not something your remaining people are going to be able to shake off like it was nothing. They may find themselves almost sending emails to their missing comrade or thinking about her because that’s who they’d normally turn to for advice. You have to give them a little wiggle room. Pick up whatever you can, move around what you can’t, and give them a few days to breathe.
- Make sure the family gets all they’re owed. If your benefits include things like life insurance, make sure the family can easily access the information to start a claim. If they had a Christmas club that had money in it, tell the family how to collect it. Funerals are expensive, but so is cleaning out someone else’s apartment and taking time off to grieve. Make it all easy because there’s nothing else in the lives of that family that will be easy for a while.
- Once all the others are ok, have your breakdown. I took part of the weekend and most of today off so I could just… decompress and stop putting out brush fires that kept reigniting. I am still feeling it. I still know she’s gone. But I’ve got a better grip on myself today. I’ve got a better grip on everything. Hopefully this will mean that when I get back tomorrow, everything will start to feel a little less like the end of an era.
I don’t have any other advice for dealing with a death in the workplace. It was never anything I thought I’d have to face (and I’ve run construction crews before). I guess that was a lot of naivety on my part.
Here’s a CTA. It’s Not Much
We’re still in mourning, but we’re also still accepting new clients, so I’m walking a fine line here. Victoria would be the first to tell me that “business is business” and I needed to suck it up. So I’m gonna do that for like five minutes to write this CTA.
I’m sucking it up.
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