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How to talk to employees after a tragic event


Whether it’s the aftermath of a hurricane or a shooting at a nearby business, your employees can’t help but bring their confusion and concerns to work. Such tragic events offer managers a unique opportunity to display leadership by helping employees cope at a difficult time.

That said, it can be hard to know what to say or do. What steps should you take to both comfort employees and encourage productivity? Are there ways to help overly distracted employees focus? What words and actions should you avoid?

The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to help your people cope. Here are four tips to get the conversation started.

1. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it

In the immediate aftermath, gather everyone together and express your concern. Use this as an opportunity to find out if anyone is personally impacted by the event. With families and friends spread across the country, one or more of your employees may have a family member involved in an event happening hundreds of miles away.

Rather than leading a group prayer, hold a moment of silence. Remember that your staff likely includes non-believers and people from a variety of faiths. You don’t want to undermine your expressions of concern by unintentionally offending people who don’t share the same beliefs as you do.

You might say, “I wanted to bring everyone together this morning to talk for a few minutes about yesterday’s terrible event. Afterward, we’ll have a moment of silence to honor the victims.”

Be sure to choose your words carefully, particularly if addressing controversial events. An example of this would be as follows: “Each of us are responding to this in our own way and may have different opinions on what has happened. Let’s be careful about one another’s feelings. We are a team, so please remember to treat one another with an extra dose of kindness and respect today and throughout the week. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s important to come together at a time like this.”

Consult your human resources team if you’re unsure of what to say. It’s important to address hurt feelings and sensitive topics with calm, supportive and inclusive language.

2. Address immediate needs

Remind employees about your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). If a tragedy hit particularly close to home, consider bringing in one or more counselors to lead group and private counseling sessions.

In the event of shootings that are geographically close or that occur in a similar type of business, employees will have questions about their own security. Reassure them by reviewing the security procedures in place and ask if they perceive any lapses in security that you can address.

Suggest that employees take more frequent breaks or a short walk if they’re having trouble concentrating.

Finally, encourage employees to call upon what they learned in sensitivity and anti-harassment training and treat one another with extra consideration during these tough times.

3. Keep expectations realistic

Think back to 9/11. How much work did you and your coworkers get done that day? Everyone was stunned, sad, angry, confused and wholly unproductive.

Using that time as a template, alter your expectations of what can realistically be accomplished in the days and weeks following a tragedy.

Depending on the event and how closely it hits your team, consider extending all non-critical deadlines and allowing employees to go home to be with their families. For events unfolding in real time, let employees gather around televisions or live-stream news on their computers.

Larger companies may want to host a conference call for all managers to discuss how their teams are dealing with the news and what should and should not be shared.

In the days and weeks following a tragedy, employees may want to take action in the form of prayer services, clothing drives or fundraising. Particularly for events that include expressions of faith, make sure all leaders understand the importance of choosing members of various faiths as speakers and using inclusive, non-political language. Consider allowing employees some extra time off to volunteer in the community, especially if an event is geographically close.

Such actions may help employees feel helpful which is good for healing. Your job as business leader is to monitor these activities to make sure that everyone feels included but, at the same time, that no one feels forced to participate or give.

4. Coach overly distracted employees

After a couple of days, most employees should return to their normal workloads without a manager’s prompting. But sometimes an employee gets sidetracked with worry or obsessed with some aspect of a tragedy.

If an employee’s long-term productivity is suffering, it’s time for a private discussion. Focus the conversation on the tangible – tasks not getting done and deadlines missed. Let the employee bring up the event. If he or she does, suggest the employee talk to someone in their personal life or an EAP counselor to help process the event.

Don’t let poor performance or bad behavior linger. That negatively affects the whole team’s productivity and morale. Treat the employee as you would any other person with performance issues. Separate the behavior or performance from the tragic event and discuss deadlines that are not being met. It is the employee’s responsibility to figure out how to meet expectations and if they aren’t doing that, you may have to part ways.

Yes, outside events intrude upon the workplace in both good and bad ways. While it’s natural to focus on tragic events, don’t forget to encourage employees to gather to enjoy happy times too. Your hometown team winning a World Series might just be the celebration that draws your people closer as a team.

Make a difference in your team’s performance every day. To learn how, download our free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2.