Inside Disruption Blog

Effective Communication Following a Workplace Tragedy

Clare McCullough
January 20, 2017

The communication that takes places between employer and employee, following a disruptive event in the workplace, can impact the overall resilience and recovery of an organization. If the message coming from executive leadership is one of validation, hope, and support, that workplace has an increased chance of returning to productivity faster. If the message is one of invalidation, uncertainty, or poorly communicated, that organization is potentially opening itself up to further employee stress reactions. In the immediate hours and days following an unexpected workplace event, such as an injury, death, or a robbery, employees who are given a clear understanding of what comes next, provided with ample support, and communicated to with compassion and care will have the best chance of moving forward.


Consider the two examples below. Based on the communication, decide which group you feel will come away better equipped to handle the unexpected event.


Case A: A manufacturing plant of 50 employees recently experienced an unexpected on-site death. One of the machine operators, who had been with the company for over 20 years, was accidentally killed while working on a newer piece of equipment. Two employees witnessed the death and called 911, but it was too late. After the employee’s body was taken by ambulance, the two men who had witnessed the incident were asked by their shift supervisor to fill out a report, before returning to work. Apart from the accident area, the rest of the plant was business as usual. Later in the day, an email was sent by the company’s vice president, to all company employees explaining there had been an accident on-site and reiterated the importance of safety precautions, but did not speak to the emotional side of the tragedy, or reassure that more communication was to follow. It did offer that any employees with further questions could talk to their immediate supervisor.


Case B: A retail store with 30 employees experienced a takeover robbery; one in which a manager was shot and killed. There were five other employees working at the time, and one of them also sustained a non-life threatening injury. Once the suspects fled, and police were called, the store shut down, and both the district and assistant store managers came up to the store to support the employees who had been working. The district manager contacted human resources and arranged for an Employee Assistance Program counselor to be there for a debriefing the following day which was available to all 30 employees. The managers decided to close the store for seven days, ensured that all staff had rides home that day, and provided a 24/7 support line that employees could call for counseling support, as needed. The managers agreed to stay in touch with all employees, as more details emerged.


Which group of employees do you think would feel most supported by company leadership? Can you think of ways in which the manufacturing plant might have done a better job? After a tragic workplace incident occurs, the employer has an opportunity to show their employees they care. It is not complex and boils down to doing the right thing, and being kind. When the unthinkable happens, if communicated with compassion, care, and support, the leadership can promote resilience and recovery within their organization. Regardless of the size of the company, or workplace culture – the ability to validate employee’s feelings, offer the necessary resources and support, and provide clear guidance on how everyone recovers together, has a tremendous impact.

Clare McCullough