Question: I own a medium-sized marketing firm with a team of 20 people. Four months ago, one of our managers died. He was a superb employee and fantastic at motivating his team and boosting morale. He was also a wonderful friend to everyone in the workplace. We need someone else to fill the role, but I am worried about how my employees will adjust to a new manager so soon. Can you advise me on how I can prepare my team for a new manager, as well as easing the new manager into the role?
Answer: The loss of a work colleague can have a deep impact. However, four months on, the business, in order to perform to its best, must now strive to move forward while still remembering the former colleague in a positive and respectful way.
Honour the deceased’s memory
During the initial stages of shock and grief at the passing of your colleague, it is important that employees feel that they have an outlet for their emotions. Providing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or a specified purpose counselling service may help staff to move through the initial stages of the grieving process, but it is still important, several months on, for employees to feel they have a place for ongoing emotions.
Hanging a photo of your former colleague in a communal area or naming a room in their honour may be fitting, depending upon the nature of your business and your office environment. Getting others involved in the arrangements and selecting the memorial may be beneficial also but ensure that you provide clear guidelines on what is appropriate and set a budget at the outset.
Re-shape the role
Rather than asking the new manager to ‘step into (the previous manager’s) shoes’, if possible, try to redistribute some of the functions of the role or redesign the content of the role slightly.
This may require others on the team to take on some minor additional responsibility and this must be acknowledged in the team.
This will help employees to see the new manager as ‘separate’ to the previous manager and allow the new manager to begin their role on a positive note. This is often the case, for example, when a sports team retires a deceased player’s number on the team.
Keep your message positive
While is it important to be respectful to your deceased colleague, it is time to look to the future in a positive light.
Rather than dwelling on the level of tragedy or shock at his departure, focus on the positive elements that he brought to the team and positive future that is ahead for the business. Introduce the new manager as a welcome addition to the team, rather than a replacement or a new version of the previous manager. Discourage employees from drawing comparisons between the new and previous manager, just as you would if they had moved on to a role in another company.
Brief the new manager
Ensure that there are no surprises for the new manager. As with any new joiner, be very clear regarding your expectations of the individual and the reasons for their recruitment.
Be very honest regarding the current atmosphere in the team, the level of difficulty that the employees are experiencing in moving forward and acknowledge your own feelings on the situation. This awareness should allow the manager to be prepared for any questions, initial hostility or even upset. It will take some skill on the part of your new manager also to acknowledge the grief regarding their predecessor, while avoiding eulogising.
Striking a balance between moving forward in a dignified and professional manner and acknowledging the grief and shock at the loss of your colleague is key to the positive future of your team. Allow employees to look back on the career and contribution of their former colleague while also providing your new manager with the tools to motivate and engage the team once more. Remember, support services are available in many forms.
Caroline Ward is HR Services Manager at Collins McNicholas Recruitment and HR Services Group, which has six offices in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Athlone and Limerick.
This article first appeared in the business section of The Sunday Independent on the 9thof September 2018, and the original version can be viewed here.
Senior Occupational Psychology Consultant