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Building Equitable Bereavement Policies in the Workplace

Different types of bereavement policies (even ones people may not usually consider), what should be included in policies, and how to be supportive to employees

Elle Mason

by Elle Mason - October 19th, 2021

One of the quickest ways to make an employee feel devalued is to mismanage bereavement when they’re grieving. Consider the pain of being told that, actually, a lifelong best friend is not a “qualified relative” to take bereavement leave for – or that your grandparent who raised you isn’t your “biological parent” and therefore you only receive one day. Many small businesses don’t have bereavement policies in place at all – but even the ones that do are not exactly as equitable or inclusive towards “non-traditional” family dynamics as they could be. This article will cover all the different types of bereavement policies (even ones people may not usually consider), what should be included in policies, and how to be supportive to employees.

First, what are bereavement policies and why should an organization have them in place?

Bereavement policies are designed to help give employees time to manage feelings (and often logistics and change) related to grief and loss. Whether it’s preparing funeral arrangements or readjusting to life without a companion, grief is a universal experience and employees are humans that should be able to step away from work temporarily in order to deal with it.

By putting a bereavement policy in place, an organization is demonstrating that they recognize employees as people with life challenges, and they don’t expect people to come in, mask their emotions and “power through” when going through this type of hardship.

What types of loss should you consider including in your bereavement policy?

Though most policies cover parents, spouses, and in some cases, extended relatives, this hardly covers the full spectrum of who could be meaningful to us. Consider, for example, the loss of a significant other of 5 years whom you cohabitated with. Or a best friend who you’ve been close with since grade school. Some progressive organizations are also offering bereavement for miscarriages and other inclusive forms of loss. By being as expansive as possible, you’ll avoid employees feeling like the organization is telling them that their loss is not “significant enough.”

What should you include in a bereavement policy?

Your bereavement policies should consider a number of factors, such as:

What employees are eligible to take bereavement leave? Full-time employees, part-time employees, contractors, etc.

Is the leave paid or unpaid?

Who is considered under the policy? As we mentioned, close and extended families are standard but it's best to be as expansive as possible. It's recommended that you use a good-faith approach to allowing an employee to determine who is considered a significant loss - rather than trying to dictate that for them.

How many days are provided? Similar to other time-off policies, how many days are employees allotted to take off? Are there extension or unpaid options if the employee needs more? GoCo has everything your team would need to track time off, and ensure they are paid accurately and on time. With GoCo’s absence management system, your team members can easily request bereavement/personal time off, and have it appear directly in their timesheets. HR can pull reports and managers can easily approve these for efficient processes.

Does the leave accrue and reset annually or is it unlimited / as needed?

Does the organization want to extend condolences in the form of a gift? What is the minimum or maximum gift allowance, or what is the standard gift? This will help avoid instances of some employees getting elaborate gifts while others are overlooked.

How do employees request leave in your HRIS? Having a digital HRIS where employees are empowered to see all of the company’s policies, bereavement, time-off information helps make it so that there are no surprises for them and they are constantly in the loop, especially if an emergency arises. It also makes it easy for HR to manage relevant requests.

What are the guidelines for requesting leave? Who does an employee need to speak with prior to taking leave? Are there any applicable forms?

But beyond policies, it’s important to extend compassion and humanity to grieving employees. Here are some simple tips to help you start.

Keep the details of the employee's leave private unless told otherwise. While some employees will be comfortable sharing, others will not. Find out directly from the employee what they'd prefer communicated to the rest of the staff. One employee might welcome support, while another might be very uncomfortable and would prefer to be business as usual upon return.

Ask them what they need. "How can we support you?" is a simple opening question that allows the employee to reflect on whether their ideal support would come in the form of time off, a looming project removed from their plate, or otherwise.

Accommodate religious customs. It goes without saying that different cultures and religions have varying practices around grief. If your employee has a religious custom they'd prefer to observe, allow them to do so without interference.

As they prepare to return to the office, ask them how you can best support their return to work. While it may seem intuitive to ask them during the initial leave discussion, consider that they won't have insight into their future emotional state.

If you haven't already, offer a training on compassionate and empathetic communication. This doesn't have to be extended, but many people struggle with what to say around others who are grieving, and giving them a bit of structure or ideas can help relieve any anxiety or help them avoid saying something that could be hurtful.

Ultimately, while this list is not exhaustive, it should help provide a starting point for building a more equitable bereavement policy, and a more compassionate workplace.