Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg on Supporting Grieving Employee


Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband Dave unexpectedly in 2015.  This year, she teamed up with her friend and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Adam Grant, to write Option B.

Option A is the employee's life with the loved one.  Option B is surviving without him or her. 

Option B is based on Sheryl's loss of her husband, Dave, and her painful but inspirational journey forward. While the book is primarily about emotional resilience, it also provides valuable lessons for HR and other leaders. Here are seven:

1.         Do not avoid the issue for fear you will remain the person of the loved one they have lost. Do you really think they can forget?

2.         Do not avoid the person. We may do that consciously or unconsciously to avoid the discomfort associated with the issue.  Even Sheryl Sandberg said she felt isolated. Try being as strong as the person suffering.

3.  Ask "How are you, today" rather than "How are you."  As Sandberg notes, this shows that you recognize there is something bigger than the day going on in the person's life without expressly saying it.

4.         Don't ask "what can I do?" Sandberg explains that this puts the burden on the person struggling to help you help them. Instead….

5.         Do something specific. Tell the person you are thinking of them. Buy them coffee. Send them a book by an author they like. Just do it.

6.         Don't say things that unwittingly diminishes your colleague’s pain, such as "he's in a better place."  Are you sure?  Instead, tell the person you know it is hard and you are available to listen or help (but only if you mean it).

7.         Revisit your bereavement policy. You may want to add additional unpaid days that a person may take in some circumstances.

In addition to what I learned from Sheryl, I need to add a legal caution that, fortunately, is consistent with common sense.

Listen more than talk. Do not ask or suggest that the person is depressed or otherwise needs help.  That could buy you a perceived disability claim.

Of course, you can remind the employee of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Is there some risk in recommending the EAP? Sure. But not as much as appearing heartless.


This blog is not legal advice, should not be construed as applying to specific factual situations or as establishing an attorney-client relationship.

Follow me on Twitter at:  @Jonathan_HR_Law.



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