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Supporting Employees After the Sudden Death of a CEO

June 23, 2015
These four steps can help employees grapple with their loss when a CEO suddenly dies, move through it together, and honor the memory of the leader they have lost.

Few things feel as though the earth has stopped spinning on its axis like the sudden death of a loved one. For an organization, the unexpected passing of its leader can have the same effect.

When it comes to dealing with loss in our private lives, a variety of religious, cultural and societal traditions support our need to step off the treadmill of the day-to-day to confront blazingly new and startling realities and gradually adjust and re-assimilate back into our lives.

In the case of the sudden death of a CEO, employees may be simultaneously grieving and expected to continue to conduct business as usual. This is particularly difficult in companies in which the CEO’s presence was so authentic and pervasive that employees, customers and even shareholders feel a deep personal connection.

Following are four elements of a plan to help employees grapple with their loss, move through it together, and honor the memory of the leader they have lost.

  1. Act quickly.
    Your crisis communication plan will outline steps for how key constituents are contacted and informed, e.g., the board of directors, the executive and communication teams, media, exchange board and investors. This needs to be carefully sequenced so that investors are not hearing the news before the board of directors, for example.

    When to inform employees? That depends on whether the company is public (in which case the news is considered material) or private (more discretion can be exercised). The rule of thumb for communicating all significant news to employees applies here: Do everything reasonably possible to ensure employees hear from the company first, or at the very least, at the same time the news is publicly released.
  2. Acknowledge – and support – employees’ sense of personal loss.
    Employees may not have been family, but many spent hours working closely with the departed executive. In larger companies, the CEO’s persona may have been so expansive and integrated into the culture that employees may feel as though they knew him or her. In this spirit, they took risks together, and celebrated successes together. These kinds of activities create strong personal ties. Likewise, employees may see him or her as somewhat heroic, especially if the person founded the company, broke new ground or led the company successfully through difficult times.

    Employees should be provided a space and opportunity to express these sentiments, in forums that fit with the company’s culture and operations. For example, the plant or site leader could quickly host a brief all-hands meeting to share some personal stories about the departed leader and signal to employees that it is okay to express and share their grief. Site human resources leaders should consider letting employees know that their door is open for drop-in and unscheduled visits, and may even opt to invite Employee Assistance Program (EAP) representatives to hold open hours over one or more days.
  3. Create avenues for sharing stories and experiences as a way to move through the grieving process.
    Employees will want to honor the leader they have lost, and to reconnect with their memories of him or her as they experience and move through the grieving process. This not only allows employees to express their grief and honor the leader they have lost; it also creates community within the organization over shared memories, and supports them in their desire to create a shared future together.

    While some of this may occur organically and at the grassroots level, leaders and managers can be proactive. Establish a channel on whatever communication tools are customary in the organization (e.g., intranet or portal, bulletin boards, Yammer, Twitter, YouTube) and invite employees to contribute their stories. The stories could revolve around a set of values closely tied to the departed leader, a business strategy she broadly championed, or a signature expression the CEO was fond of saying, such as the oft-quoted Steve Jobs’ line: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
  4. Provide a sustainable mechanism to continue honoring the person.
    Actively participating in something that was meaningful to the departed leader may help employees feel they are carrying on his or her legacy. For example, if the leader was particularly dedicated to a charitable cause, consider supporting that cause by granting employees time off for volunteering. If innovation was a hallmark of her leadership, consider establishing a charitable foundation in her name that sponsors innovation grants to children of employees.

    Charitable funds, academic chairs, and other special remembrances can help cement a good CEO’s influence on the organization, build goodwill in the community, and help employees and others move forward.

The time to plan is now because no one is immune from the shock and loss a sudden death delivers. If your organization has not yet confronted a catastrophic loss – take this as a cautionary tale, and prepare. It may sound macabre, and some executives abhor the idea (they don't want to think they may die or be fired), however, every company should have a crisis communication plan and processes in place that address the sudden death of any executive whose loss could have a material impact on the company and its employees.

Tracy Benson is the founder and CEO of On the Same Page (, a business consultancy that partners with the world’s leading organizations to apply employee communication and engagement strategies, often during times of change. The company works in collaborative relationships across all business sectors. Clients include American Standard Brands, ARAMARK, Evonik, Exelis, Novartis, PepsiCo, Tensar, and others.

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