Handling a Death Within the Firm

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Originally published on accountingtoday.com

Death and taxes. It’s an accepted truth that we’ve all got to deal with these two issues, and for taxes we have CPAs to tell us what to do. Death, however, is less straightforward in almost every aspect. What’s more, it’s a taboo topic in many contexts, leaving us even less prepared to manage a highly complex issue when it strikes our firm. One of our clients recently experienced this unfortunate event, and it left us wondering: how does one properly handle the various ways a death affects each co-worker, client and the firm itself?

Coping with death involves a multitude of issues, from the purely emotional to the logistical. An unexpected death is shocking and stressful. Even if a colleague passes away after a long illness, it is still difficult to meet all the immediate challenges and even harder to get back to “normal.” Breaking the needs into separate categories is helpful for formulating a strategy to handle such a multifaceted situation. In general, you’ll need to consider four types of concerns.

Emotional issues: Death is shocking, sad and disturbing in almost every case—even when it doesn’t come as a surprise. Business as usual simply isn’t possible, so expect some down time and emotional rough edges for a little while.

  • Allow time and space for team members to grieve and talk about their feelings. Some will be able to do this right away; others will struggle to share their feelings until some time has passed. Some will not want to discuss them at all. All ways of dealing with grief are appropriate, and an apparent lack of concern does not indicate a callous nature, or mean that the individual has processed the loss and moved on.
  • Provide counseling and time off as appropriate and as possible. Be prepared for expressions of grief to take many forms, including sudden outbursts and even low performance.
  • Be aware that coming to terms with the loss of a colleague may take many weeks, or even months. Processing grief is a personal challenge that isn’t predictable (or necessarily obvious).
  • Consider firm-wide activities that acknowledge the loss and memorialize the shared relationships. These can take many forms, but working together on a project to commemorate the life that was is often helpful for healing, whether it’s a plaque, garden area, support for a charity, race team in a fundraiser for a particular disease, scholarship fund, etc.

HR issues: You haven’t hired or fired, but you’ve got a similar to-do list when someone on the team dies. (Note that these steps are appropriate when the death does not happen in the workplace and is not work-related. Deaths of that nature will require additional steps.)

  • Notify HR personnel, executives and other staff with a critical need to know immediately, and follow up with details for the entire team soon after.
  • Reach out to the spouse, partner or other family to give condolences, learn about memorial services or other preferences (and communicate these to the rest of the staff) and implement death benefits as appropriate.
  • It’s a good idea to establish one team member as the contact person for the family, to avoid overwhelming bereaved family members with multiple contacts at first. This person can track and deliver notes, flowers or other gestures directly to the family.
  • Update employee files and tax records with information about the death. Complete all official termination paperwork, contacting relevant agencies as appropriate. State laws vary, so you may need to research your responsibilities for handling final compensation and related tax issues. Obtain certified death certificates and file necessary paperwork with life and disability insurance, pension managers, health insurance, COBRA and all other benefits.
  • Communicate with staff, and possibly clients, regarding funeral plans, donations, flowers and any plans to provide family support or commemorate the life of the employee through memorial funds, scholarships or other types of tributes.

Tech issues: Your team member no doubt had an email address through the firm, access to sensitive files and programs, and any number of passwords related to the firm and its work. Playing cleanup here needs to be done sooner rather than later.

  • The first step is to immediately establish email forwarding so another staff member can determine if or how to share the news with senders. Alternatively, you might want to consider setting up an auto-reply for email communications that gently provides the bad news, along with contact information for someone prepared to assist with questions and concerns. You may or may not want to include information about memorial services or other pertinent issues in this auto-reply.
  • Collect all the devices that the deceased used for work: desktops, smartphones, laptops, tablets, external hard drives, etc. You may need to work with family members or others to complete this task, especially if some personal devices were also used for professional functions. Be gentle and patient; this is a much harder time for them than for you, no matter how close your work relationship may have been.
  • Decide how to address work-related social media accounts, particularly his or her personal LinkedIn page. In most cases, other social media profiles are more personal in nature, but make sure the firm remembers to take care of this one and handles it carefully.
  • If the deceased has a bio page on your website, you’ll need to remove this as well. Some firms decide to replace the bio with an obituary of sorts for a period of time before removing it completely. We suggest you discuss the options with the family of the deceased to get their input, and then decide how to handle it appropriately.
  • Quickly change passwords for all programs, devices and applications. Get help from your firm’s IT provider or other professional who knows which tools are in use and has access to all passwords.
  • Gathering work files from desktops, laptops, electronic storage and other devices is another key task that may require the help of your IT staff.

Logistical issues: The work your colleague handled is a big concern here, but there are other issues to address as well.

  • Compile a list of current clients and projects, and assign other individuals to take on each one.
  • Reach out to clients to break the news personally and assure them their work is still in good hands, albeit not the same ones.
  • Work with IT staff and others responsible for gathering electronic files and documents, and ensure these are delivered to those who are taking on the work.
  • Don’t forget about paper! Files, folders or stacks of documents may be at home and at the office—or even in the car. These might not be easily found or sorted out either, depending on personal work style. Still, it’s important to gather and deliver them to the right person quickly, so work can continue and nothing falls between the cracks.
  • Make a list of all credit cards, keys and other equipment held by the team member who passed and ensure they are returned to the firm.
  • Close or transfer business-related financial accounts held in the deceased person’s name.
  • Contact the family about personal possessions left in the office. They can be gathered and removed by the family, or someone at the firm—preferably a close friend—can do this and deliver them.

It seems like we’d all be used to death by now, and yet we are not. You might find it disturbing to read this article, and to be honest, it was unsettling to write. But death comes for everyone, so it’s reasonable to think about how your firm would deal with everything it entails. Check the lists above and take steps to ensure you have processes in place that will help you do what is necessary when a firm member dies. You won’t be able to predict or prevent it, but you can definitely keep it from being any more complicated than it would be otherwise.

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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their target audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on the websites of over a dozen Top 100 Accounting Firms and in Accounting Today, Forbes and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!