How would your business handle the unexpected loss of a key member of staff

According to Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Even if you avoid leaning into Murphy’s pessimism, contingency should be a priority if you run a business. Here are a few areas worth giving some thought.


Remote working

If your business has decided not to have a permanent office address but rather have all staff working remotely, you may be thinking that the risk of your business being impacted by bad weather or fires has reduced. But is that really the case? If you haven’t shifted your contingency planning from focusing on a single address to multiple locations, you may be in trouble. And don’t forget that those extra locations are not limited to your staff’s kitchens, back bedrooms or sheds. The internet connections that allow you to work seamlessly as though you are in the same building are potential weak spots, even more so if an employee is relying on mobile data – phone masts are even more exposed to the wrong kind of weather than train tracks.


When everyone is based in one workspace, it is easy to ensure that staff are cross trained on multiple duties so that there is always cover.  But that can sometimes be more difficult to implement when people are working remotely.


The advent of remote working can do great things for flexibility, productivity and even staff retention, but we do have to recognise that this model is not without risks, and we need to ensure that our contingency plans fully reflect this new way of working.


Training and reinforcing company policies and procedures are vitally important, particularly when you have a remote workforce.



You should already have systems in place to ensure you have backups of documents. If storage of your important work is cloud based, consider keeping a copy of your most vital data in at least one other place. It may feel a little luddite-esque, but no organisation or technology is foolproof, and while you may expect a cloud service provider to take full responsibility if anything goes wrong, consider the size of your company and the size of the cloud service provider. Are you a big enough customer to merit more than an oh dear, how sad, never mind? If you really can’t function without certain data, it’s best to take a belt and braces approach.


And if huge service suppliers can be fallible, so too can you and your team. Regular reminders of how and where to save work may feel tedious (for all concerned) but taking processes for granted or not taking seriously the need to have processes can lead to huge problems. This is even more important when staff work remotely. Remote workers should also have a back up to cover loss of internet connection, such as using mobile data, even for just long enough to email documents to a colleague.


Remember to think through the consequences of your planning. For example, don’t assume that every remote worker will have spare data on their phone. You may need to supply your remote staff with work phones or separate SIM cards (these days many phones have double SIM card slots).


Losing staff suddenly

Loss of a member of your team can happen for any number of reasons, and most of the time you will have a month’s notice to find a replacement, organise any necessary training, and work out any tweaks needing to be made to maintain your service or production of your product. But what happens if the loss is sudden and unexpected? It is not something anyone is keen to consider, but the sudden death of a colleague could have a massive impact on your business.


As a boss, you will be in the uncomfortable position of dealing with staff grief and managing logistics. Often when people deal with the loss of someone close, work can be a welcome distraction, but when a colleague dies, the workplace offers less opportunity to escape grief.


Grief can affect people in different ways—physical, emotional, psychological—and you will need to navigate a course that simultaneously looks after your staff and keeps the business running. You will find this task easier if you have already planned as much as possible for this eventuality.


Communication is important

Inform your staff about the death of a colleague with sensitivity.  This is particularly important if a team is small, but regardless of the size of your workforce always bear in mind that close friendships may have developed. Provide staff with contact details for sources of support.


If possible, speak to people in person, prioritising the deceased colleague’s immediate team.

Be respectful of any limits on information requested by the person’s family.


Consider how you and your team will pass condolences on to the deceased person’s family. Decide if you will organise sending a condolence card and/or flowers from the team or leave it to individuals to pay their respects in their own way, in which case you will need to organise passing on contact details.


Inform staff about funeral arrangements and decide on your preferred arrangements on the day. It may be that you give everyone time off to attend the funeral service or to reflect and to mark the day in their own way. Or if that is not possible, perhaps the company can be represented by two or three people at the service. Whatever route you decide to take, it will be easier to implement if you have thought about it in advance.


Practical aspects

Dealing with clearing the deceased’s colleague’s desk or cubical can be difficult – there may triggering reminders such as handwritten notes and personal effects (perhaps a favourite pen or mug). If your company employs a large number of people, it’s likely there will be an HR department to deal with this, but in smaller organisations it may fall to you to organise this. Be cautious about delegating this task, but it may be something that another colleague takes some comfort from. Also consider if the family of the deceased wants to be involved in some way.


If the deceased colleague worked remotely you will need to consider how and when you contact the family regarding such things as business keys, files, and computer equipment. If work is stored to the cloud, then retrieving a work laptop will be less urgent.


However, you may need to prove that equipment belongs to your business. Keep, store and have easy access to receipts and any relevant serial numbers. While you don’t want business equipment to be included in the estate of the deceased, you will need to mindful of approaching this with sensitivity.


The impact of the sudden death of a colleague on the business itself can be mitigated by safeguards such as sharing calendars and contacts lists, but this will vary from business to business. You need to plan ahead to ensure that your customers continue to receive your services and/or products. You should also consider how work will be re-allocated in the event of a member of your team passing away unexpectedly. This may vary from colleague to colleague.


The burden of looking after your staff while keeping the business on track will rest on your shoulders but do remember to include yourself in the mix. Being in crisis management mode may spare you from the initial emotional impact of the loss of a colleague, but grief has a way catching up with you. Make sure your contingency planning includes looking after you.



Jane Robson is CEO of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP)



Share this...
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *