Mourning in America

light-1551387_960_720-2Someone in your family just died. That’s really too bad, and work must be the last thing on your mind. You’ll obviously need time to grieve, attend a funeral, blah, blah, blah, but you’ll be OK enough to head back to the office really soon, right? Like, perhaps in three days? Sound cool to you?

Of course, you may take longer than that, but things may get…um…you know…kind of complicated to figure out. But really, you should take whatever time you need. Still, three days should be sufficient, right?

That’s essentially the response that many workers get from their employers after a loved one dies. While few managers or HR professionals would ever say the above, they don’t have to. They have policies to do it for them. Nationwide, the average length of paid leave for bereavement of immediate family members is three days. One day for your cousin Shelby.

Ain’t no way I’d be able to work, let alone function semi-normally, that soon. And I doubt you would. Neither would anyone who works in HR—you know, the same people who craft or uphold these egregious edicts.

So why not change the rules? 

Well, because three days is still an unofficial standard, which is really just an unimaginative way of repeating the “this is how we’ve always done it” cliché. And because with a myopic eye toward the bottom line, many companies can’t envision that distraught workers might actually hurt it. Or maybe because the business will fall apart because work won’t get done. (Ha!)

While it’s common for managers to ignore their HR manual on a case-by-case basis to help direct reports, what message is a business nonetheless sending to its workforce when it perpetuates procedures that strip “human” from human resources?

I would post about all this on Facebook if Facebook hadn’t already beat me to it. Earlier this week, the company’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced in a status update that starting this year, employees will get up to:

  • 20 days off following the death of an immediate family member.
  • 10 days for an extended family member.
  • 6 weeks to care for a sick relative.
  • 3 days to care for a family member with a short-term illness, like a child with the flu.
  • All paid.

The announcement was especially personal for Sandberg, whose husband died in 2015. She wrote:

…amid the nightmare of Dave’s death when my kids needed me more than ever, I was grateful every day to work for a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery. I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn’t be. People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off.

Facebook’s decision is particularly laudable given that a whopping 40% of private-sector workers get no paid leave to mourn loved ones. Think about that. The majority of people who don’t work for Uncle Sam must make the “choice”—you know why those quotes are there—to take vacation time to attend their Uncle Sam’s funeral.

Of course, people also have the “option” to take up to 12 weeks of FMLA unpaid leave to deal with their anguish. But the quotes appeared again because many workers can’t live without a paycheck. Even for those who can, death is already extremely tough. Employers shouldn’t be making life tougher.

Now, perhaps I’m being overly cynical, but I wonder if Facebook would’ve improved its guidelines had the spouse of a C-suite officer not died. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the organization for creating a more humane workplace. Sandberg’s heartbreak also sucks majorly.

But personal circumstances can inform strategy; they should not drive it. Rather, good leaders must be able to draw on their sympathy and empathy to make the right decisions. In other words, it should be enough to visualize yourself in someone’s shoes. You shouldn’t have to slip into them to effect change.

Again, I don’t know if Sandberg’s own terrible tribulations inspired Facebook’s new protocols. I also recognize that human nature being what it is, sometimes it takes a life-altering experience to see the world differently. Regardless, motives here matter less than outcomes. My only hope is that more companies follow Facebook’s trailblazing lead—and that they not wait for tragic events to fix tragic policies.

2 thoughts on “Mourning in America

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I believe three measly days off for bereavement is borderline inhumane. It definitely reeks of a lack of sympathy, empathy and caring that employers are supposed to have for their employees. I had to quit my job shortly after my mother died. I tried going back to work but I couldn’t focus or function. I was depressed and crying all the time. It just wasn’t working. To be fair, my then employer did not have the archaic three day rule. I think I was out about two weeks before going back. But still, it wasn’t working for me. However, a colleague of mine buried her mother on Saturday and was at work on Monday. Everybody handles grief differently and we should honor and respect those differences. Of course you have to be cognizant of the needs of the business but for many, three days is a holiday weekend, not a sufficient mourning period. We have to better as a culture.


    1. I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I think about my own mom dying all the time (because I’m morbid that way), and I can’t even being to imagine working 3 days, 3 weeks, even 3 months later. I agree with you that people mourn differently, and three days of bereavement leave is an effing joke, a cruel one at that. As you said, we have to do better.


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