How would you react if your employee left saying: “I don’t know when I’ll be back”?
No bereavement policy, employee assistance program, or manager handbook can prepare you to demonstrate compassionate leadership when one of your employees faces a tragedy or crisis. Your leadership choices will not only affect the individual – they will be remembered by everyone who will think “that could have been me.”
I can share a real-life example, based on my own experience:
On Sunday night, the 16th of October 2005, I received a phone call from my father, who lived 4000 miles away on another continent. He said my mother had been in an accident, she was out of surgery and it had gone well. I was concerned, but the surgery had been a success – so I went to bed, and was in the office by 8am the next day.
I was working for Deloitte in London, engaged on a change management project for a large global bank. I shared news of this phone call with my immediate boss as well as our Project Director, both of whom asked a great deal of detailed questions. When I could not answer, I began to feel less comfortable about my assumption that a successful surgery meant a positive outcome. They ushered me out of the room to call the hospital. It became clear that my mother had sustained a serious head injury and when the nurse explained that she may not wake up, my perspective utterly changed. Her words divided my life into Before and After.
The next hours were a whirlwind to arrive at my mother’s bedside as quickly as possible, and what followed was weeks and then months of waiting for her to wake up. So there I stayed, 4000 miles away from my home and my job. And for all that time, all I ever said to Deloitte was “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
This is how they responded:
First, my boss and Project Director helped me to navigate those initial hours. In retrospect I know they were assessing my ability to cope. They stayed in the room with me, and there was no rushing off to “more important” meetings. Never once did they bring up work. Then, after writing a brief and incomplete handover email on the plane, I never heard another word about the project I had been working on. They took care of every single work detail – it was all invisible to me.
My family started a blog about my mother’s status, and many of my colleagues and fellow project team members posted comments of compassion and encouragement. To my surprise, so did many of the Deloitte partners. Openly revealing their humanity in such a public and visible way is not a choice that everyone might make. Until I returned to work, that is pretty much all I heard from Deloitte. There were probably plenty of conversations behind the scenes about how to manage the ongoing situation, but all I knew is that I still had a job to return to.
After three months I was welcomed back.
Because of their comments on the blog, I didn’t have to worry about hiding my pain and appearing perfect or whole. I knew that they were understanding about whatever my emotional state might be, and therefore I felt safe. I could go back to work and not use up all my energy by trying to pretend that everything was normal.
On my return, I was offered a lead role on a major internal project. This gave me a new challenge, but it also mitigated the risk to the firm’s reputation if I was still an emotional mess. Grief is not linear and they did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t know what to expect, and being internal rather than client-facing definitely helped me to cope.
I did find the well-meaning questions about my mother’s health difficult. I still do, 12 years later. The concept of “recovery” for a head injury is flawed. After a traumatic brain injury, people may go back to the living but they do not go back to how they were before. Rather than asking about my mother, I would have preferred that people ask how I am doing. Sometimes it helps to focus on the individual and not the cause.
I am no longer at Deloitte, but I frequently run into ex-colleagues. Without fail, they all remember “that woman whose mother was in a coma,” my sudden disappearance and eventual return. My story was alive in those corridors as I struggled to cope, 4000 miles away. To this day, it forms some part of the collective Deloitte consciousness, something that connected us together in a very human way.
They all remember how I was treated:
- Genuine leadership helped me navigate the initial hours of an unknown and unfolding crisis. Given that we spend more hours at work than anywhere else other than sleeping, it’s likely that an employee will be at work in the initial stages of a crisis.
- My employer took care of the work details. They never asked for the most updated version of a presentation which was on my desktop. They explained to the client why I wasn’t able to return my access card. And probably many other things that I don’t even know about.
- My bosses and colleagues demonstrated their compassion openly. The conversation about what I was going through became normalized, at least for me. I didn’t feel like I wanted to hide. I was a human working with other humans.
- They integrated me back in a safe way that did not compromise my career. On that very project I was promoted from leading the change management team of about 10 people to leading the whole project of some 50 people. So in fact, the “safe” role they found for me turned out to be a career opportunity.
You cannot prepare for the range of adversities your employees may face, but you can err on the side of compassion. During times of tragedy, grief and crisis of your employees, you can make a difference in the life of the grieving person.
I hope that sharing my story helps those who may be grieving today or questioning their strength because they feel raw. And I hope my story inspires you, as a leader, to err on the side of visible compassion.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com