What to write when an employee dies

Writing an article that captures the essence of the person who passed away requires more than checking the human resources file. Here’s what to do.

Our shared mourning over the death of Steve Jobs got me thinking about what to write when our own employees die.

Tributes to famous people, especially if they are ailing, old or addicted, are prepared well in advance. I remember writing my first obituary at journalism school, about Barbara Walters, still going strong decades later.

Since then, I’ve written many short ones for company intranets, mostly about regular people whose lives mattered deeply to a much smaller group. I’ve tried to keep them simple, classy and personal, without the over-wrought expressions you hear too often at funerals or read in newspaper memorials.

The person who has passed should be honored as the unique and special individual they were. That means more than checking the human resources file to list the jobs he held or achievements for which she will be remembered. It means talking to co-workers closest to the deceased. Some will be too shy or stunned to talk, especially if the death was sudden, so you may have to make a few calls to find someone who can provide the insight and information you need for a tribute.

If you ask general questions about what they liked about the individual, you will get general answers. Things like he “worked hard and played hard” or she was “smart, organized and kind.” Lots of people can be described this way.

But ask these friends about times they remember and you’ll get stories that tell people what he was like. For example, you’ll hear about the night he sang loud a cappella karaoke when the power went out at the office Christmas party, or how she would pop in to water the plants when she was on vacation.

You don’t have to say a lot—just one quick anecdote can capture the essence of the person who will be remembered. Don’t forget that small acts of kindness may be more likely to be remembered than big corporate coups.

To demonstrate the employee was valued, the obituary should come from one of the corporate leaders, whether the CEO, human resources director or local manager. Colleagues who provided the examples and memories should be acknowledged and a more general expression of sympathy, depending on the relationship, extended to friends and family.

Of course mourning isn’t a one-person, one-day phenomenon. Set up a memorial page where others can reminisce. If the deceased is be remembered at, for example, a cancer fundraising event, make sure others know.

It’s wonderful to honor giants like Steve Jobs who have transformed our world. But if you want to create an organizational culture where people feel truly engaged, you have to remember that everyone matters, including those who have died and the people who miss them.

Barb Sawyers combines her love of writing and talking in her ebook Write like you talk—only better, and in her blog, workshops and communication services for business and nonprofit clients.


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