How to Deal With Tragedy in the Workplace

Offer comfort to co-workers affected by tragedy.

Offer comfort to co-workers affected by tragedy.

On a typical day at the office, the biggest co-worker problem you'll likely face is tuning out the chatty neighbor in the next cubicle or dealing with a jammed copy machine. Occasionally, you'll face more serious issues, such as responding in the face of tragedy. Whether you're close to the affected co-worker or not, be aware that her emotions are understandably in turmoil and respond with empathy and sensitivity.

Get the facts. To the greatest extent possible, get ground truth on what happened and the nature of the tragedy, so you're better able to gauge an appropriate response. Don't get caught up in speculation about the event or embellishing it in the retelling. Based on the nature of the tragedy, determine which co-workers are affected.

Share information about the tragedy with co-workers or employees only to the extent that you have the facts and that they have what the intelligence community calls a "need to know." This means giving people in the office the basic outline of the event and encouraging them to be supportive of affected co-workers, but without sharing unnecessary personal details.

Offer condolences and support to your co-worker in a simple, empathetic statement. "I'm truly sorry for your loss and I'm here if you need me" is sufficient in most cases. It acknowledges the tragedy and reassures the affected individual that her co-workers are aware of her pain and available for help and support as she needs them, but avoids being intrusive. Well after the event, consider contributing to a memorial or getting the office involved in a charitable or fund-raising event related to the co-worker's tragedy: organize a team of co-workers to participate in a cancer research 5K run in honor of the co-worker who lost her sister to the disease, for example.

Refrain from pressing your co-worker for details -- she'll offer them if and when she feels ready to do so. Unless you're very close friends, stay in the background and don't try to insert yourself into the situation. Be aware that her focus likely isn't on work right now, so don't push for project contributions or report inputs right away -- give her time to get her feet on the ground. Take your cue from the boss in terms of when and how to help cover her duties until she's ready to tackle a full workload again.

Warning

  • Avoid using platitudes or cliches such as "I understand how you're feeling." Unless you've been through the same thing yourself, you don't know how your co-worker is feeling. Comments of this type tend to come across as shallow or insensitive, rather than caring or sympathetic.
 

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

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