By Bob VandePol, MSW
When death by suicide strikes the workplace, employees immediately look to its leadership for direction. How leaders respond when all eyes are upon them offers both tremendous opportunity and serious risk for the subsequent outcomes.
Do the right thing, and it’s good for business. Crisis leadership aims to mitigate the human, financial, productivity, reputational, and morale costs of tragedy. When death by suicide impacts an organization it produces a day people will never forget. Those you lead will not. Neither will you.
Death by suicide powerfully jars our concept of the way life is supposed to be, and challenges our core foundations such as, “What can I really trust?”
Some will react more strongly than others. Some co-workers may now be at increased risk for their own self-harm. But when exposed to this event the primary question regresses to “how would leadership respond if it was me? How valued am I?”
At risk is trust
Effective crisis leadership after suicide demonstrates trustworthiness at three levels: competence, character and compassion. These elements are not mutually exclusive and must be in evidence simultaneously.
Especially when shaken, people need to experience leadership that has a plan and demonstrates expertise. Acknowledge your own pain but let people see you move forward confidently. People must witness someone who is also impacted and fully acknowledges that impact but is strong enough to move forward while sad. There is tremendous power in strong, calm presence. Calm is just as contagious as fear.
Communicate sensitive but confident belief in others’ competence. Express a firm expectation of recovery and return to a New Normal. Guide people to efficacy through sensitive resumption of familiar tasks and schedules. They need to know you believe in them and will support their success.
Demonstrate competence by bringing expert resources into play such as the EAP to provide support and guidance.
Those led must witness leadership that keeps promises, operates by the rules, and “does the right thing.” Suicide breaks rules. Sometimes suicide feels like a lie. Leadership must cherish shared life-giving values especially at this time.
Suspicion and distrust need not be logical to be powerful. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Minus current information people tend to develop their own and that misinformation can be very damaging.
Demonstrate caring. Death by suicide is a very human crisis. Care for the family of the deceased as well as others who are particularly impacted. People will equate that caring with the value you hold for them.
Build community by being visible to groups of impacted co-workers and emphasizing the strength available through community. Remind work teams to support each other both emotionally and functionally while they may not be at their best.
Bob VandePol, MSW serves as Executive Director for the Pine Rest Employee and Church Assistance Programs which provides Critical Incident Response services to business, organizations, schools and universities as well as faith communities. Mr. VandePol is a member of the Workplace Task Force Active of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership championing suicide prevention as a national priority. Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7548 or firstname.lastname@example.org