Managing a bereavement in the workplace – what should employers do?
By Linda Powell There are a number of employment law and legal issues that are associated with a death in an employee’s near, or extended family that might not immediately be apparent to the employer. For example, should any time off to arrange the funeral or cope with a loss unexpected or otherwise be paid or unpaid? How long is reasonable to offer the employee ? Would you offer the day of the funeral only, or should you be a bit more generous? What about religious observation or tradition or if travel overseas is required? Are you at risk of a religious discrimination claim if you do not allow your employee the opportunity to observe the relevant period of mourning? In this instance you might need to think about what your business can realistically accommodate, given that recent court decisions have provided that religious beliefs and customs should be respected so far as is reasonable and practicable in the circumstances. If absence cannot be granted, then perhaps think about what your objective business reasons are for not being able to agree to a request, or try to balance the needs of the business against those of the employee to reach some sort of satisfactory compromise for all concerned. That will enable you to demonstrate that the business has acted reasonably and proportionately should the employee decide to bring a claim. What do you tell other members of staff given that the information is potentially sensitive personal data and of a confidential nature? The best solution to this example is get specific consent from the employee to understand what information can be shared by the employer with their fellow employees. What about when they return to work – are there are any legal issues that might arise if depression results from the bereavement? Would this be a disability? What if the employee starts to take intermittent or significant periods of time off work to cope with the bereavement, should this be counted for sickness purposes? You might need to consider discounting the sickness absence from your triggering your capability procedures. These are the tricky issues that can arise from a bereavement that , understandably, do not immediately spring to mind as a possible consequence. They can be a difficult judgement call to make for the employer. It’s important to think about having a company wide policy to deal with the issues across the company. If you have concerns about whether you might be facing a discrimination or tribunal claim in terms of your handling of this sensitive topic, you may need to get some expert HR advice.