The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 10, 2013

Watercooler: The Benefit of Office Bereavement Policies

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: My mother died last fall, leaving me distraught. My boss eventually sent an email to our department about my loss and mentioned that he didn't circulate a sympathy card (he later told me he didn't know if I would have wanted that). None of my colleagues, after reading the email, even breathed a word of sympathy to me. (I have since learned via my boss that they don't like me.) A colleague in another department was told not to circulate a card for me. When the sibling of one of my staff members died recently, I circulated a card; all my colleagues and my boss signed it and contributed to flowers. They acknowledged the loss of another colleague's father a few years ago. I think that my boss and my colleagues were cold, callous and cruel for not acknowledging my grief. Should I say anything to them?

A: I am so sorry for your loss.

Seems easy enough to say, doesn't it? But I can think of reasons — not excuses but explanations — why your co-workers might have fumbled the simple ritual of offering condolences. The snub could have resulted from uncertainty, rather than malice; your co-workers may have feared saying the wrong thing or seeming insincere. Or the idea of circulating a card may have been nixed by someone who has been taught that cards with pre-printed messages and multiple signatures are better suited to celebrations than to condolences.

I find such explanations more plausible than the idea of an office full of people deliberately refusing to offer condolences to an unpopular colleague out of cruelty. If that's the case, you need new colleagues and a boss who acts like a boss, not like a middle-school frenemy. You're a person who lost a loved one. Your social status is irrelevant.

Your painful story illustrates why every workplace needs a consistent policy for addressing personal events. Even if it seems overly bureaucratic, a policy would ensure that all workers, popular or not, who suffer a loss are acknowledged while preventing awkward, ad hoc responses such as your boss' email. For example, such a policy might have required your boss to ask if you wanted your loss acknowledged — some people prefer to keep their grief separate from work — and, if so, to extend an appropriate gesture on behalf of the office.

I hope you have a professional or support group helping you navigate your grief. If you feel up to it, you might find some strength and purpose in proposing an official bereavement policy at work, couching your own hurt as follows: "When my mother died, I realized how much it means to have that loss acknowledged by others."

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.